Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biography
COLERIDGE, SAMUEL TAYLOR (1772-1834). An English poet, philosopher, and critic. He was born at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, and educated at Christ's Hospital, where Charles Lamb was a schoolfellow. He was an omnivorous reader, even as a boy, and, gaining access to a library through a chance acquaintance, he read "right through the catalogue." He soon gained a remarkable knowledge of Greek, and before he was 15 plunged boldly into the sea of metaphysics. The sonnets of W. L. Bowles, which fell into his hands at this time, gave him his first impulse towards poetry. In 1791 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge. At the university his whole mind was given to classics, and he obtained a prize for a Greek ode. During his second year there, in a fit of despondency, he went up to London and enlisted in the Fifteenth Dragoons, under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberback, or Cumberbatch-remaining faithful to the initials S. T. C., which were afterward to be so familiar among the readers of his period. His identity was discovered through an accident, and his friends intervened to procure his discharge. He returned to Cambridge in 1794, but never took a degree. During a visit to Oxford he became acquainted with Southey, and in the same year, after a trip through Wales, visited him at Bristol. The two young men and some of their friends now formed a scheme for emigrating to the United States, where, on the banks of the Susquehanna (the melody of the name seems to have been one of the inducements), they were to found a colony where the laws of equality and fraternity were to prevail, and the golden age was to be ushered in. They, with Wordsworth and other generous youth of the time, were deeply impressed with the proclamation of liberal principles in the French Revolution, though they afterward drew back, alarmed by its excesses, some into extreme Toryism. The establishment of their ideal "Pantisocracy" was delayed by the lack of capital; and a year or two later the dream faded away.
At Bristol, Coleridge became acquainted with his future wife, Sara Fricker, to whose sister Southey was engaged. Joseph Cottle, a bookseller in Bristol, had offered Coleridge 30 guineas for a volume of his poems and promised him a guinea and a half for every 100 lines he should write after finishing it. On this prospect he married in October, 1795, and settled in a cottage at Clevedon. After many delays his volume of Juvenile Poems appeared in April, 1796. His earlier work is all in the stereotyped style of the eighteenth century and shows little trace of the powers which were to make him famous. In the early part of 1796 he began the publication of a weekly review, the Watchman, devoted to literature and politics, but met with little success, and abandoned the undertaking after the tenth issue. In the winter of 1796 he settled at Nether Stowey, near Bridgewater, whither Wordsworth removed in the following year. He was freed from the material cares of life by the generosity of Charles Lloyd, the son of a Birmingham banker, who had become a devoted disciple of Coleridge, and Thomas Poole, who conferred on him a small annuity. At Nether Stowey, inspired perhaps partly by the beautiful scenery and still more by the strengthening companionship of his friend, he composed his finest poems, including the "Ancient Mariner" and the first part of "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan," though the two latter were not published until 18 years afterward. The two authors had many discussions on the principles of their art, which resulted in the publication, in 1798, of their epoch-making Lyrical Ballads. This little book, published anonymously, though a total failure at the time, was decisive in its influence on the future of nineteenth-century poetry, freeing it finally from the conventional trammels which had long bound it. The work of the two poets is singularly complementary—Coleridge treating supernatural subjects in such a way as to give a strong impression of their reality, while Wordsworth so handled the simplest themes as to disclose unsuspected elements of mystery and awe. Coleridge's contribution to the Ballads comprised the "Ancient Mariner," the "Nightingale," and two scenes from his play Osorio. In the edition of 1800 there was added "Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie."
Coleridge, who had become a Unitarian at Cambridge, preached frequently during this period in the chapels of that body and had thoughts of becoming a regular minister. To deliver him from this necessity, two brothers named Wedgwood settled on him an annuity of £150, and this enabled him to carry out the long-cherished plan of going to Germany to study. In September, 1798, he sailed for Hamburg with Wordsworth, and after acquiring the language went to Göttingen, remaining, in all, nearly a year. This was a period of vast importance in his development, and he said himself that there was no time of his life to which he looked back with such unmingled satisfaction. He came under the influence of what Shairp calls "an impulse, the most original, the most far-reaching, and the most profound which Europe has seen since the Reformation." The first result of his new knowledge of German thought was not in philosophy, but in poetry; on his return to England he published his noble translation of Schiller's Wallenstein. He also contributed fitfully to the Morning Post to the end of 1802. Before that time, however, he had settled at Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake District, attracted by the proximity of Wordsworth and Southey, who were to share with him the designation of Lake Poets, given in derision by the Edinburgh Review. Here, in 1800, he wrote the second part of "Christabel." Driven from the North by rheumatism in 1804, he went to the Mediterranean, acting for some months as secretary to the Governor of Malta and spending several more at Rome.
On his return to England he delivered some lectures on poetry and the fine arts at the Royal Institution, London, and began the publication of the Friend, a periodical which contained too much abstruse philosophy to be popular and lived less than a year. During part of 1811 he was connected with the Courier, contributing articles of a general political nature. In 1813 his play Remorse was successfully produced at the Drury Lane Theatre and helped to relieve his distressed financial condition. His enslavement to opium, which he had begun to take as a relief from his rheumatic pains, was now increasing and, in De Quincey's opinion, "killed him as a poet." His constitutional indolence and dislike for steady application completed his unfitness for meeting the demands of life. Roving between London and the Lakes, where his family was generally under Southey's care, he spent a number of baffled and disappointed years.
From 1816 until his death, July 25, 1834, he lived in the house of Mr. Gillman, at Highgate in London, where he received the kindest and most judicious care and at least to some extent mastered his craving for opium. Though he projected far more than his habits ever allowed him to accomplish, he left as the result of those years no inconsiderable bulk of critical and philosophic writing; the Biographia Literaria (1817, and, with annotations and biographical supplement by Sara Coleridge, 1847) is especially noteworthy. It was, however, as a talker, discoursing with an inexhaustible flow of ideas to admiring visitors, that he shone most brilliantly in his latter years. Talk was his best medium for showing himself to others. His style in prose writing was cumbrous and his matter involved. In reading his written work of this class we feel instinctively that the critic was greater than the criticism.
No man had ever appeared in England who united in so eminent a degree the three functions of critic, philosopher, and poet. With all his defects Coleridge must be recognized as being, in Mill's phrase, the greatest "seminal mind" of his time. The present generation does not realize how much it owes to him in many fields of thought—how many impulses, still powerful, he set in motion. In criticism he was the father of modern Shakespearean study, laying in a few pregnant sentences a broad basis for criticism in contrast to the narrow canons of Johnson and the eighteenth-century school. His Aids to Reflection and some of his other theological writing inspired Maurice and Stanley and the Broad Church movement as a whole. His aphorisms are often decisive—it is to him we owe what are now commonplaces, the distinction between genius and talent, fancy and imagination, wit and humor. Detached phrases of his are still upon the lips of many who do not remember their source—like "Every man is born either an Aristotelian or a Platonist," or "Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in the best order." In philosophy, originally a fervent disciple of Hartley (q.v.), who had been a member of his own college, he passed on through the theories of Berkeley and Leibnitz, and, after falling under the influence of the German and other mystics, came to a point where, he says, the works of Kant took hold of him as with a giant's hand. He adopted and based all his teachings on Kant's distinction between the Understanding and the Reason; and while he has not as a philosopher left any complete system, yet he rendered excellent service by his insistence, in such a period as his, on the reality and preëminence of the spiritual verities. His introduction into England of German literature and philosophy, so powerfully seconded by Carlyle, is alone enough to give him a high place among the forces that determined the course of nineteenth-century thought among English-speaking people. But it is as a poet that he must hold the highest rank, though no other poet has ever attained such a place on so small a volume of first-class work. "Christabel," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "Kubla Khan" (which so good a judge as Swinburne has called "for absolute melody and splendor the first poem in the language") cannot be put in any but the highest class. Moreover, his influence on his successors must be taken into account. The Pre-Raphaelite movement, which Theodore Watts-Dunton defines as "the Renaissance of the Spirit of Wonder in poetry and art," owes more to him than to any other English poet. One can only regret that so much was wasted of the greatest powers which for generations had been granted to any Englishman.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 575-576.