advanced course lesson 10
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devon. This a county in south-western England. His father was a priest in the Church of England. 1772 is the year of Samuel’s birth. The Coleridge family had high social status because the church was held in great esteem. But they were not aristocrats. Financially they were much better off than most people. But their wealth did not match their standing. Samuel had a happy family life but was often ill with rheumatic fever and other ailments. His fond parents did what they could for him. However, he was afflicted with severe worry. He also suffered bouts of melancholy. It is more than possible that he had bipolar disorder.
There were 11 children in the Coleridge family. His father wed twice because his first wife died. Divorce was vanishingly rare in those days. It was impossible for a priest.
Coleridge is one of the foremost poets of the Romantic Movement. He is well known for a number of masterful poems such as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He also wrote in prose. Samuel Taylor was a noted scholar of Shakespeare.
Christ’s Hospital is a school despite the name. In days of yore ‘hospital’ meant a charitable institution of any kind and not solely a place of medical care. It was thither that Samuel was sent at 8. As the school law over 200 leagues from his home per force he became a boarder. The boys wore cassocks as uniforms. In those days Christ’s Hospital was in the heart of London. It has since shifted to the countryside.
Many schoolboys passed their time playing sports. Samuel was not of a sporty bent. Instead he devoured books. He read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe when he was little. Samuel also read Arabian Nights – these tales had a profound affect on him. He dreamt of scenes from these narratives for a long time thereafter.
At school Coleridge was taught to construe Latin and Greek. His teacher was unusual in having them read English Literature. Back then English Literature was thought to be light reading. The master favoured the works of John Milton in particular.
Because of his bookishness , his frailty and his indifference to athletics he was unpopular. Samuel was often singular. He wrote Frost at Midnight to express how he felt.
In 1791 he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge. He studied hard. However, he met a young woman with whom he fell in love. He was jilted by her. Possibly because of this he dropped out of university and enlisted in the army. He made an unlikely soldier. The Napoleonic Wars were on and they needed more men. His family found him and paid the army to let him leave. Samuel went back to his college. However, he did not complete his degree. That was not an uncommon occurrence back then.
Samuel had been indifferent to politics. But he was a teenager during the French Revolution. It was impossible for an intelligent person not to become politically engaged. He had a friend called Robert Southey who was fascinated by politics. Southey wrote the Fall of Robespierre about the doyen of the French Revolution who was later convicted for counterrevolutionary activities.
Southey and Samuel came up with the quixotic idea of founding the ideal community in the United States. It was to be called Pantisocracy. In the end they did not even try to set it up. But the two wed sisters. Samuel and his wife Sara produced four children in short order. He came to rue his marriage and believe it was an error of the most grevious kind. After a few years they lived apart. They did not divorce.
In 1796 Samuel met Joseph Cottell. Cottell later helped him financially. That same year Samuel published his first volume of verse. He published a book which contained poems by Southey as well as himself.
Thomas Chatterton was a magnificent poet who died at the age of 17. Samuel’s interest was piqued by this maudlin tale. He composed a poem on it.
Charles Lamb was a close friend of Samuel. They co published a book too.
Samuel began to take a drug called laudunum. This was entirely lawful at the time. People took it for recreational purposes. He found that this alleviated the overwhelming worry that he felt.
In the late 1790s Coleridge worked as a private tutor. He moved to Somerset. This is a county in the south-western peninsula of England. This is adjacent to his native county. This proved to be a most productive period. He came to known William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
At this time Samuel composed Kubla Khan. In this poem he wrote ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree.’ He later recalled that he composed this poem whilst under the influence of laudunum. Whilst writing this poem he was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ whom some take to have been the postman. Had it not been for this then he would have written much more.
Somerset is a maritime county. Samuel interacted with sailors. This made him reflect on their hardihood and the travails that they braved. He was driven to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which is his lengthiest poem. These days we spell the word ‘rhyme’. A ‘mariner’ is a sailor. Sailors were incredibly superstitious back then. Some of them believed that to kill an albatross would seal one’s doom. In this poem a sailor ill-advisedly shoots and albatross. The others feel foreboding. Of course calamity befalls them. Their ship sinks. They cling to a raft but have no drinking water. Samuel wrote ‘water, water everywhere but never a drop to drink.’
In 1798 Samuel and his pal William Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads. Some take this as the start of the Romantic Age in English literature.
Though not religious in his youth he was friends with some clergy. Reverend Toumlin was a dear friend of his. Toumlin’s daughter was mentally ill and threw herself into the sea to commit suicide. Toumlin reacted with stoicism to his daughter drowning herself.
In 1797 Samuel spent some time in Shropshire. He was becoming more religious He assisted a local Unitarian minister. At this point Samuel considered becoming a religious leader.
Josiah Wedgwood paid Samuel an honorarium. But this was with the caveat that Samuel was not allowed to be a minister of religion. Samuel reluctantly accepted. Wedgwood was immensely impressed with Samuel’s verse and was his patron of the arts.
In 1798 Samuel sailed to Germany. Germany was not a united country back then. It was divided into 360 states. Some of the states were completely independent. Others were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The UK was at war against France. Most German states were pro-British or neutral. So Samuel could travel freely there. He enrolled at the University of Gottingen. There he mastered the German tongue. He became fascinated by philosophy.
Upon his return to the British Isles Samuel translated the works of German writers into English. He spent 1799 in northern England.
At this time Coleridge became more curious about politics. He read Political Justice by William Godwin. Samuel Taylor Coleridge inclined towards radicalism. However, he was cautious about enfranchising the masses. Some people were illiterate back then. Many were literate but to a very low level. Samuel feared that the majority were philistine. He did not idealise the lower orders.
In 1800 he resided at Keswick Hall in the Lake District. This was to be close to William Wordsworth. Dorothy cooked for Samuel. She found this exasperating as he often turned up his nose at the food she prepared. Samuel walked in the hills but pushed himself too hard. He fell ill and took too much laudanum. He also had heated arguments with Wordsworth.
In 1804 he worked in Spain and Malta.
In later life he wrote Biographia Literaria which is mainly autobiographical. It is his main prose work.
Coleridge spent the last ten years of his life in London. There he died. He is interred under a church floor in Highgate.
- Where was Coleridge born?
- What was his full name?
- What year was he born?
- What was his father’s occupation?
- How many children were in the family?
- What artistic movement was Coleridge part of?
- Which school did he attend?
- Which college did he go to?
- What is his poem about a sailor?
- What poem did he write whilst abusing drugs?
- Which foreign land did he study in?
- What was the Grand Tour?
- What was his relationship with Wordsworth like?
- Where did he die?
- Name a poem by Coleridge?
- Why is he important? Five sentences.