Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biography
The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Birth and parents
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), an English poet and philosopher, was born on the 21st of October 1772, at his father’s vicarage of Ottery St Mary’s, Devonshire.
His father, the Rev. John Coleridge (1719–1781), was a man of some mark. He was known for his great scholarship, simplicity of character, and affectionate interest in the pupils of the grammar school, of which he was appointed master a few months before becoming vicar of the parish (1760), reigning in both capacities till his death. He had married twice. The poet was the youngest child of his second wife, Anne Bowdon (d. 1809), a woman of great good sense, and anxiously ambitious for the success of her sons.
On the death of his father, a presentation to Christ’s Hospital [an English boarding school] was procured for Coleridge by the judge, Sir Francis Buller, an old pupil of his father’s. He had already begun to give evidence of a powerful imagination, and he has described in a letter to his valued friend, Tom Poole, the pernicious effect which the admiration of an uncle and his circle of friends had upon him at this period.
For eight years he continued at Christ’s Hospital. Of these school-days Charles Lamb has given delightful glimpses in the Essays of Elia. The headmaster, Bowyer (as he was called, though his name was Boyer), was a severe disciplinarian, but respected by his pupils. Middleton, afterwards known as a Greek scholar, and bishop of Calcutta, reported Coleridge to Bowyer as a boy who read Virgil for amusement, and from that time Bowyer began to notice him and encouraged his reading.
Some compositions in English poetry, written at sixteen, and not without a touch of genius, give evidence of the influence which Bowles, whose poems were then in vogue, had over his mind at this time. Before he left school his constitutional delicacy of frame, increased by swimming the New River in his clothes, began to give him serious discomfort.
In February 1791 he was entered at Jesus College, Cambridge. A school-fellow who followed him to the university has described in glowing terms evenings in his rooms, “when Aeschylus, and Plato, and Thucydides were pushed aside, with a pile of lexicons and the like, to discuss the pamphlets of the day. Ever and anon a pamphlet issued from the pen of Burke. There was no need of having the book before us;— Coleridge had read it in the morning, and in the evening he would repeat whole pages verbatim.”
William Frend, a fellow of Jesus, accused of sedition and Unitarianism, was at this time tried and expelled from Cambridge. Coleridge had imbibed his sentiments, and joined the ranks of his partisans. He grew discontented with university life, and in 1793, pressed by debt, went to London. Perhaps he was also influenced by his passion for Mary Evans, the sister of one of his school-fellows.
A poem in the Morning Chronicle brought him a guinea, and when that was spent he enlisted in the 15th Dragoons under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. One of the officers of the dragoon regiment, finding a Latin sentence inscribed on a wall, discovered the condition of the very awkward recruit. Shortly afterwards an old school-fellow (G. L. Tuckett) heard of his whereabouts, and by the intervention of his brother, Captain James Coleridge, his discharge was procured.
Early politics and marriage
He returned for a short time to Cambridge, but quitted the university without a degree in 1794. In the same year he visited Oxford, and after a short tour in Wales went to Bristol, where he met [Romantic poet Robert] Southey. The French Revolution had stirred the mind of Southey to its depths. Coleridge received with rapture his new friend’s scheme of Pantisocracy [a utopian scheme to create an egalitarian community].
On the banks of the Susquehanna was to be founded a brotherly community, where selfishness was to be extinguished, and the virtues were to reign supreme. No funds were forthcoming, and in 1795, to the chagrin of Coleridge, the scheme was dropped.
In 1794 The Fall of Robespierre, of which Coleridge wrote the first act and Southey the other two, appeared. At Bristol, Coleridge formed the acquaintance of Joseph Cottle, the bookseller, who offered him thirty guineas for a volume of poems. In October of 1795 Coleridge married Sarah Fricker, and took up his residence at Clevedon on the Bristol Channel. A few weeks afterwards Southey married a sister of Mrs Coleridge, and on the same day quitted England for Portugal.
Coleridge began to lecture in Bristol on politics and religion. He embodied the first two lectures in his first prose publication, Conciones ad Populum (1795). The book contained much invective against Pitt, and in after life Coleridge declared that, with this exception, and a few pages involving philosophical tenets which he afterwards rejected, there was little or nothing he desired to retract.
The first volume of Poems was published by Cottle early in 1796. Coleridge projected a periodical called The Watchman, and in 1796 undertook a journey, well described in the Biographia Literaria, to enlist subscribers. The Watchman had a brief life of two months, but at this time Coleridge began to think of becoming a Unitarian preacher, and abandoning literature for ever. [William] Hazlitt, [an English writer, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher] has recorded his very favourable impression of a remarkable sermon delivered at Shrewsbury; but there are other accounts of Coleridge’s preaching not so enthusiastic.
Friendship with Wordsworth
In the summer of 1795 he met for the first time the brother poet with whose name his own will be forever associated. [William] Wordsworth and his sister [Dorothy] had established themselves at Racedown in the Dorsetshire hills, and here Coleridge visited them in 1797. There are few things in literary history more remarkable than this friendship. The gifted Dorothy Wordsworth described Coleridge as “thin and pale, the lower part of the face not good, wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth, longish, loose, half-curling, rough, black hair,”—but all was forgotten in the magic charm of his utterance.
Wordsworth, who declared, “The only wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge,” seems at once to have desired to see more of his new friend. He and his sister removed in July 1797 to Alfoxden, near Nether Stowey, to be in Coleridge’s neighbourhood, and in the most delightful and unrestrained intercourse the friends spent many happy days. It was the delight of each one to communicate to the other the productions of his mind, and the creative faculty of both poets was now at its best.
One evening, at Watchett on the British Channel, The Ancient Mariner first took shape. Coleridge was anxious to embody a dream of a friend, and the suggestion of the shooting of the albatross came from Wordsworth, who gained the idea from [George] Shelvocke’s Voyage (1726) [Shelvelock was an English Royal Navy officer and later privateer who wrote A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea.]
A joint volume was planned. Wordsworth was to show the real poetry that lies hidden in commonplace subjects, while Coleridge was to treat supernatural subjects to illustrate the common emotions of humanity. From this sprang the Lyrical Ballads, to which Coleridge contributed The Ancient Mariner, the Nightingale and two scenes from Osorio, and after much cogitation the book was published in 1798 at Bristol by Cottle, to whose reminiscences, often indulging too much in detail, we owe the account of this remarkable time.
A second edition of the Lyrical Ballads in 1800 included another poem by Coleridge—Love, to which subsequently the sub-title was given of An Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie. To the Stowey period belong also the tragedy of Osorio (afterwards known as Remorse), Kubla Khan and the first part of Christabel.
In 1798 an annuity, granted him by the brothers Wedgwood, led Coleridge to abandon his reluctantly formed intention of becoming a Unitarian minister. For many years he had desired to see the continent, and in September 1798, in company with Wordsworth and his sister, he left England for Hamburg. Satyrane’s Letters (republished in Biog. Lit. 1817) give an account of the tour.
Return to political concerns
A new period in Coleridge’s life now began. He soon left the Wordsworths to spend four months at Ratzeburg, whence he removed to Göttingen to attend lectures. A great intellectual movement had begun in Germany. Coleridge was soon in the full whirl of excitement. He learnt much from Blumenbach and Eichhorn, and took interest in all that was going on around him.
During his stay of nine months in Germany, he made himself master of the language to such purpose that the translation of Wallenstein—his first piece of literary work after his return to England—was actually accomplished in six weeks. It was published in 1800, and, although it failed to make any impression on the general public, it became at once prized by Scott and others as it deserved. It is matter for regret that a request to Coleridge that he should undertake to translate Faust never received serious attention from him.
During these years Coleridge wrote many newspaper articles and some poems, among them “Fire, Famine and Slaughter,” for the Morning Post (January 8, 1798). He had vehemently opposed Pitt’s policy, but a change came over his way of thought, and he found himself separated from Fox on the question of a struggle with Napoleon. He had lost his admiration for the Revolutionists, as his “Ode to France” shows (Morning Post, April 16, 1798). Like many other Whigs, he felt that all questions of domestic policy must at a time of European peril be postponed.
From this time, however, his value for the ordered liberty of constitutional government increased; and though never exactly to be found among the ranks of old-fashioned Constitutionalists, during the remainder of his life he kept steadily in view the principles which received their full exposition in his well-known work on Church and State. In the year 1800 Coleridge left London for the Lakes. Here in that year he wrote the second part of Christabel. In 1803 Southey became a joint lodger with Coleridge at Greta Hall, Keswick, of which in 1812 Southey became sole tenant and occupier.
The influence of opium
In 1801 begins the period of Coleridge’s life during which, in spite of the evidence of work shown in his compositions, he sank more and more under the dominion of opium, in which he may have first indulged at Cambridge. Few things are so sad to read as the letters in which he details the consequences of his transgression. He was occasionally seen in London during the first years of the century, and wherever he appeared he was the delight of admiring circles.
He toured in Scotland with the Wordsworths in 1803, visited Malta in 1804, when for ten months he acted as secretary to the governor, and stayed nearly eight months at Naples and Rome in 1805–1806. In Rome he received a hint that his articles in the Morning Post had been brought to Napoleon’s notice, and he made the voyage from Leghorn in an American ship. On a visit to Somersetshire in 1807 he met De Quincey for the first time, and the younger man’s admiration was shown by a gift of £300, “from an unknown friend.”
In 1809 he started a magazine called The Friend, which continued only for eight months. At the same time Coleridge began to contribute to the Courier. In 1808 he lectured at the Royal Institution, but with little success, and two years later he gave his lectures on Shakespeare and other poets. These lectures attracted great attention and were followed by two other series.
In 1812 his income from the Wedgwoods was reduced, and he settled the remainder on his wife. His friends were generous in assisting him with money. Eventually Mackintosh obtained a grant of £100 a year for him in 1824 during the lifetime of George IV., as one of the royal associates of the Society of Literature, and at different times he received help principally from Stuart, the publisher, Poole, Sotheby, Sir George Beaumont, Byron and Wordsworth, while his children shared Southey’s home at Keswick. But between 1812 and 1817 Coleridge made a good deal by his work, and was able to send money to his wife in addition to the annuity she received.
The tragedy of Remorse was produced at Drury Lane in 1813, and met with considerable success. Three years after this, having failed to conquer the opium habit, he determined to enter the family of Mr James Gillman, who lived at Highgate. The letter in which he discloses his misery to this kind and thoughtful man gives a real insight into his character. Under judicious treatment the hour of mastery at last arrived. The shore was reached, but the vessel had been miserably shattered in its passage through the rocks. For the rest of his life he hardly ever left his home at Highgate.
During his residence there, Christabel, written many years before, and known to a favoured few, was first published in a volume with Kubla Khan and the Pains of Sleep in 1816. He read widely and wisely, in poetry, philosophy and divinity. In 1816 and the following year, he gave his Lay Sermons to the world. Sibylline Leaves appeared in 1817; the Biographia Literaria and a revised edition of The Friend soon followed. Seven years afterwards his most popular prose work—The Aids to Reflection—first appeared. His last publication, in 1830, was the work on Church and State.
Death and literary legacy
It was not till 1840 that his Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, by far his most seminal work, was posthumously published. In 1833 he appeared at the meeting of the British Association at Cambridge, but he died in the following year (25th of July 1834), and was buried in the churchyard close to the house of Mr Gillman, where he had enjoyed every consolation which friendship and love could render. Coleridge died in the communion of the Church of England, of whose polity and teaching he had been for many years a loving admirer. An interesting letter to his godchild, written twelve days before his death, sums up his spiritual experience in a most touching form.
Of the extraordinary influence which he exercised in conversation it is impossible to speak fully here. Many of the most remarkable among the younger men of that period resorted to Highgate as to the shrine of an oracle, and although one or two disparaging judgments, such as that of Carlyle, have been recorded, there can be no doubt that since Samuel Johnson there had been no such power in England. His nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, gathered together some specimens of the Table Talk of the few last years. But remarkable as these are for the breadth of sympathy and extent of reading disclosed, they will hardly convey the impressions furnished in a dramatic form, as in Boswell’s great work.
Four volumes of Literary Remains were published after his death, and these, along with the chapters on the poetry of Wordsworth in the Biographia Literaria, may be said to exhibit the full range of Coleridge’s power as a critic of poetry. In this region he stands supreme. With regard to the preface, which contains Wordsworth’s theory, Coleridge has honestly expressed his dissent:—“With many parts of this preface, in the sense attributed to them, and which the words undoubtedly seem to authorize, I never concurred; but, on the contrary, objected to them as erroneous in principle, and contradictory (in appearance at least) both to other parts of the same preface, and to the author’s own practice in the greater number of the poems themselves.”
This disclaimer of perfect agreement renders the remaining portion of what he says more valuable. Coleridge was in England the creator of that higher criticism which had already in Germany accomplished so much in the hands of Lessing and Goethe. It is enough to refer here to the fragmentary series of his Shakespearian criticisms, containing evidence of the truest insight, and a marvellous appreciation of the judicial “sanity” which raises the greatest name in literature far above even the highest of the poets who approached him.
As a poet Coleridge’s own place is safe. His niche in the great gallery of English poets is secure. Of no one can it be more emphatically said that at his highest he was “of imagination all compact.” He does not possess the fiery pulse and humaneness of Burns, but the exquisite perfection of his metre and the subtle alliance of his thought and expression must always secure for him the warmest admiration of true lovers of poetic art. In his early poems may be found traces of the fierce struggle of his youth. The most remarkable is the Monody on the Death of Chatterton and the Religious Musings. In what may be called his second period, the ode entitled France, considered by Shelley the finest in the language, is most memorable. The whole soul of the poet is reflected in the Ode to Dejection. The well-known lines—
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live;
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud,”
with the passage which follows, contain more vividly, perhaps, than anything which Coleridge has written, the expression of the shaping and colouring function which he assigns, in the Biographia Literaria, to imagination. Christabel and the Ancient Mariner have so completely taken possession of the highest place, that it is needless to do more than allude to them.
The supernatural has never received such treatment as in these two wonderful productions of his genius, and though the first of them remains a torso, it is the loveliest torso in the gallery of English literature. Although Coleridge had, for many years before his death, almost entirely forsaken poetry, the few fragments of work which remain, written in later years, show little trace of weakness, although they are wanting in the unearthly melody which imparts such a charm to Kubla Khan, Love and Youth and Age. (G. D. B.; H. Ch.)
Philosophical and religious legacy
In the latter part of his life, and for the generation which followed, Coleridge was ranked by many young English churchmen of liberal views as the greatest religious thinker of their time. As Carlyle has told in his Life of Sterling, the poet’s distinction, in the eyes of the younger churchmen with philosophic interests, lay in his having recovered and preserved his Christian faith after having passed through periods of rationalism and Unitarianism, and faced the full results of German criticism and philosophy. His opinions, however, were at all periods somewhat mutable, and it would be difficult to state them in any form that would hold good for the whole even of his later writings. He was, indeed, too receptive of thought impressions of all kinds to be a consistent systematizer.
As a schoolboy, by his own account, he was for a time a Voltairean, on the strength of a perusal of the Philosophical Dictionary. At college, as we have seen, he turned Unitarian. From that position he gradually moved towards pantheism, a way of thought to which he had shown remarkable leanings when, as a schoolboy, he discoursed of Neo-Platonism to Charles Lamb, or — if we may trust his recollection —translated the hymns of Synesius.
Early in life, too, he met with the doctrines of Jacob Behmen, of whom, in the Biographia Literaria, he speaks with affection and gratitude as having given him vital philosophic guidance. Between pantheism and Unitarianism he seems to have balanced till his thirty-fifth year, always tending towards the former in virtue of the recoil from “anthropomorphism” which originally took him to Unitarianism. In 1796, when he named his first child David Hartley, but would not have him baptized, he held by the “Christian materialism” of the writer in question, whom in his Religious Musings he terms “wisest of mortal kind.”
When, again, he met Wordsworth in 1797, the two poets freely and sympathetically discussed Spinoza, for whom Coleridge always retained a deep admiration; and when in 1798 he gave up his Unitarian preaching, he named his second child Berkeley, signifying a new allegiance, but still without accepting Christian rites otherwise than passively.
Shortly afterwards he went to Germany, where he began to study Kant, and was much captivated by Lessing. In the Biographia he avows that the writings of Kant “more than any other work, at once invigorated and disciplined my understanding”; yet the gist of his estimate there is that Kant left his system undeveloped, as regards his idea of the Noumenon, for fear of orthodox persecution — a judgment hardly compatible with any assumption of Kant’s Christian orthodoxy, which was notoriously inadequate.
But after his stay at Malta, Coleridge announced to his friends that he had given up his “Socinianism” (of which ever afterwards he spoke with asperity), professing a return to Christian faith, though still putting on it a mystical construction, as when he told Crabb Robinson that “Jesus Christ was a Platonic philosopher.” At this stage he was much in sympathy with the historico-rationalistic criticism of the Old Testament, as carried on in Germany; giving his assent, for instance, to the naturalistic doctrine of Schiller’s Die Sendung Moses.
From about 1810 onwards, however, he openly professed Christian orthodoxy, while privately indicating views which cannot be so described. And even his published speculations were such as to draw from J. H. Newman a protest that they took “a liberty which no Christian can tolerate,” and carried him to “conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian.” This would apply to some of his positions concerning the Logos and the Trinity. After giving up Unitarianism he claimed that from the first he had been a Trinitarian on Platonic lines; and some of his latest statements of the doctrine are certainly more pantheistic than Christian.
The explanation seems to be that while on Christian grounds he repeatedly denounced pantheism as being in all its forms equivalent to atheism, he was latterly much swayed by the thought of Schelling in the pantheistic direction which was natural to him. To these conflicting tendencies were probably due his self-contradictions on the problem of original sin and the conflicting claims of feeling and reason.
It would seem that, in the extreme spiritual vicissitudes of his life, conscious alternately of personal weakness and of the largest speculative grasp, he at times threw himself entirely on the consolations of evangelical faith, and at others reconstructed the cosmos for himself in terms of Neo-Platonism and the philosophy of Schelling. So great were his variations even in his latter years, that he could speak to his friend Allsop in a highly latitudinarian sense, declaring that in Christianity “the miracles are supererogatory,” and that “the law of God and the great principles of the Christian religion would have been the same had Christ never assumed humanity.”
From Schelling, whom he praised as having developed Kant where Fichte failed to do so, he borrowed much and often, not only in the metaphysical sections of the Biographia but in his aesthetic lectures, and further in the cosmic speculations of the posthumous Theory of Life. On the first score he makes but an equivocal acknowledgment, claiming to have thought on Schelling’s lines before reading him; but it has been shown by Hamilton and Ferrier that besides transcribing much from Schelling without avowal he silently appropriated the learning of Maass on philosophical history. In other directions he laid under tribute Herder and Lessing; yet all the while he cast severe imputations of plagiarism upon Hume and others. His own plagiarisms were doubtless facilitated by the physiological effects of opium.
Inasmuch as he finally followed in philosophy the mainly poetical or theosophic movement of Schelling, which satisfied neither the logical needs appealed to by Hegel nor the new demand for naturalistic induction, Coleridge, after arousing a great amount of philosophic interest in his own country in the second quarter of the century, has ceased to “make a school.” Thus his significance in intellectual history remains that of a great stimulator. He undoubtedly did much to deepen and liberalize Christian thought in England, his influence being specially marked in the school of F. D. Maurice, and in the lives of men like John Sterling. And even his many borrowings from the German were assimilated with a rare power of development, which bore fruit not only in a widening of the field of English philosophy but in the larger scientific thought of a later generation. (J. M. Ro.)
Of Coleridge’s four children, two (Hartley and Sara) are separately noticed. His second child, Berkeley, died when a baby. The third, Derwent (1800–1883), a distinguished scholar and author, was master of Helston school, Cornwall (1825–1841), first principal of St Mark’s College, Chelsea (1841–1864), and rector of Hanwell (1864–1880); and his daughter Christabel (b. 1843) and son Ernest Hartley (b. 1846) both became well known in the world of letters, the former as a novelist, the latter as a biographer and critic.After Coleridge’s death several of his works were edited by his nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, the husband of Sara, the poet’s only daughter. In 1847 Sara Coleridge published the Biographia Literaria, enriched with annotations and biographical supplement from her own pen. Three volumes of political writings, entitled Essays on his Own Times, were also published by Sara Coleridge in 1850. The standard life of Coleridge is that by J. Dykes Campbell (1894); his letters were edited by E. H. Coleridge.
This biography was adapted by Excellence in Literature from the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, which is available through Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 3.0 License.
Enjoy some of Coleridge’s best poetry, courtesy of EIL
You’ll study Coleridge as part of EIL Unit 4 (British Literature)