Coleridge was born in Devonshire, and was the youngest of the thirteen children of the vicar of Ottery St. Mary. As a child, he was unusually precocious:
“I never thought as a child,” he says,” never had the language of a child.”
When he was nine years old, his father died; Samuel then obtained a place in Christ’s Hospital, where he astonished his schoolmates, one of whom was Charles Lamb, with his queer tastes in reading and speculation. He went to Cambridge (1791), where he was fired with revolutionary doctrines. He dropped out of the university and enlisted in the Light Dragoons, but after a few months as a soldier he ended his military career. In 1794, he returned to Cambridge, and later in the year at Oxford, became acquainted with Southey, with whom he planned the founding of an ideal republic in America. With Southey he lived for a while at Bristol, and there he met Southey’s wife’s sister, whom he eventually married. At Bristol Coleridge, he lectured, wrote poetry, and issued a newspaper called The Watchman (1796), all with the idea of converting humanity; yet in spite of it all, humanity remained unperturbed in its original sins. At this time (1797), he met Wordsworth, and, as had already been noticed, planned their joint production of the Lyrical Ballads, which was published at Bristol.
After a brief spell as a Unitarian minister, Coleridge, who was now dependent on a small annuity from two rich friends, studied German philosophy on the Continent. He returned to England in 1799, and for a time lived in Lake District. There followed a serious attempt at political journalism, which failed because of his constitutional incapacity to provide regular contributions. In 1800 he was at Keswick, and, during what was to be his final period of great poetical inspiration, produced the second part of Christabel and his ode Dejection. By now he was in almost continual ill-health, and by 1803 he had become enslaved to opium which was to have such disastrous effect upon him. Ill-health and an unhappy domestic life sent him abroad to Malta and Italy (1804-06), and on his return he began a period of restless wandering around the country, never staying very long anywhere. It was during his restless years that he stared giving lectures, starting with a very poor series at the Royal Institution in 1808. The year 1811 saw his finest series of lectures, those on Shakespeare and other poets, which were followed by a further series in 1812 and 1813. During this period, he struggled but with little success, to get rid of the opium habit which was sapping his abilities, and then, in 1816, he entered the house of a Mr. Gillman, in Highgate. This provided for him a kind of refined and sympathetic inebriates’ home. Here he gradually shook himself free from opium-taking, and he spent the last years of his life in an atmosphere of subdued content, visited by his friends, and conversing interminably in that manner of wandering but luminous intelligence that marked his later years. From the house in Highgate he published a few books that, with all their faults, are among the best of their class.
The real blossoming of Coleridge’s poetical genius was brief indeed, but the fruit of it was rich and wonderful. With the exception of a very few pieces, the best of his poems were composed within two years, 1797-98. His first book was Poems on Various Subjects (1796), issued at Bristol. The miscellaneous poems that the volume contains have only a very moderate merit. Then, in collaboration with Wordsworth, he produced the Lyrical Ballads (1798). This remarkable volume contains nineteen poems by Wordsworth and four by Coleridge; and of these four by far the most noteworthy is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Wordsworth has sent on record the origin of The Ancient Mariner. He and Coleridge discussed the poem during their walks on the Quantock Hills. The main idea of the voyage, founded on a dream of his own, was Coleridge’s; Wordsworth suggested the details, and they thought of working on it together. Very soon, however, Coleridge’s imagination was fired with the story, and his friend very sensibly left him to write it all. Hence we have that marvelous series of dissolving pictures, so curiously distinct and yet so strangely fused into one; the voyage through the polar ice; the death of the albatross; the amazing scenes during the calm and the storm; and the return home. In style, in swift stealthiness of narrative the poem is without a parallel.
In 1797 Coleridge also wrote the first part of Christabel, but, though a second part was added in 1800, Christabel is the tale of a kind of witch, who, by taking the shape of a lovely lady, wins the confidence of the heroine Christabel. The tale has barely begun when it collapses. Already Coleridge’s fatal indecision is declaring itself. Incomplete as it is, and with its second part somewhat inferior to its first, the poem is yet clear evidence of Coleridge’s superlative power as a poet. The supernatural atmosphere is here less obviously created than in The Ancient Mariner; Coleridge relies on the most delicate and subtle suggestion, hidden in minute but highly significant details in the story. There are passages of wonderful beauty and of charming natural description, though they scarcely reach the heights of The Ancient Mariner. The metre, now known as the Christabel metre, is a loose but exceedingly melodious form of the octosyllabic couplet full of skillful rhythmic variations. It became exceedingly popular, and its influence is still unimpaired. We give a brief extract to show the metre, and also to give a slight idea of the poet’s descriptive power:
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances so often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
Kubla Khan, written in 1798, was, like Christabel, unfinished, and it also remained unpublished until1816. It is the echo of a dream, the shadow of a shadow. Coleridge avers that he dreamt the lines, awoke in a fever of inspiration, threw the words on paper, but before the fit was over was distracted from the composition, so that the glory of the dream never returned and Kubla Khan remained unfinished. The poem, beginning with a description of the stately pleasure-dome built by Kubla Khan in Xanadu, soon becomes a dreamlike series of dissolving views, each expressed in the most perfect imagery and most magical of verbal music, but it collapses in mid-career.
In the same year Coleridge composed several other poems, including the fine Frost at Midnight and France: An Ode. In 1802 he wrote the great ode Dejection, in which he already bewails the suspension of his “shaping spirit of imagination.” Save for a few fragments, such as the beautiful Epitaph, The Knight’s Tomb, the remainder of his poems are of poorer quality and slight in bulk. His play Remorse was, on the recommendation of Byron, accepted by the management of the Drury Lane Theatre and produced in 1813. It succeeded on the stage, but as literature, it is of little importance.
Features of his poetry
Within its peculiar limits his poetical work, slight though it is, is of the highest quality.
The most conspicuous feature of the poems is their intense imaginative power, superbly controlled, in his finest poems, by his unerring artistic sense. It exploits the weird, the supernatural, and the obscure. Yet, such is the power of true imagination, it can produce what Coleridge calls “that willing suspension of disbelief,” and for the moment, he can compel us to believe it all. He sees nature with a penetrating and revealing glance, drawing from it inspiration for the stuff for his poetry. He is particularly fine in his description of the sky and the sea and the wider and more remote aspects of things.
No poet has ever excelled Coleridge in witchery of language. His is the song the sirens sang. The Ancient Mariner has more than one passage like the following:
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
The Epitaph we have mentioned is another fine example:
Where is the grave of Sir Arthur O’Kellyn?
Where may the grave of that good man be?
By the side of a spring, on the breast of Helvellyn,
Under the twigs of a young birch tree.
The oak that in summer was sweet to hear,
And rustled its leaves in the fall of the year,
And whistled and roared in the winter alone,
Is gone, and the birch in its stead is grown.
The Knight’s bones are dust,
And his good sword rust:
His soul is with the saints, I trust.
The reader of such passages can discover something of the secret of their charm by observing the dexterous handling of the metre, the vowel-music, and other technical features, but in the last analysis, their beauty defies explanation: it is there that the genius lies. Along with his explosive fervour, Coleridge preserves a fine simplicity of diction. He appeals directly to the reader’s imagination by writing with great clearness. In this respect he often closely resembles Wordsworth. His meditative poem Frost at Midnight strongly shows this resemblance:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth ………
The same blight that afflicted Coleridge’s poetry lies upon his prose. It is scrappy, chaotic, and tentative. In bulk it is large and sprawling; in manner it is diffused and involved; but in its happier moments, it possesses a breadth, a depth, and a searching wisdom that are as rare as they are admirable. Most of his prose was of journalistic origin. In theme it is chiefly philosophical or literary. In 1796 he started The Watchman, a periodical, ambitious in scope, which ran to ten numbers only.
To this journal Coleridge contributed some typical essays, which, among much that is both obscure and formless, show considerable weight and acuteness of thought. He followed it with much more miscellaneous prose, some of it being written for The Morning Post, to which he was for a time, a contributor. In 1808 he began a series of lectures on poetry and allied subjects, but already the curse of opium was upon him, and the lectures were failures. While he resided in the Lake District he started The Friend (1809), which was published at Penrith, but like The Watchman it had a brief career. Then in 1817, when he had shaken himself free from opium, he published Biographia Literaria, which is his most valuable prose work. It pretends to record his literary upbringing, but as a consecutive narrative it is quite worthless. After sixteen chapters of philosophizing, almost entirely irrelevant, he discusses the poetical theory of his friend Wordsworth, and then in the last seven chapters of the books he gives a remarkable demonstration of his critical powers. He analyses the Wordsworthian theory in masterly fashion, and, separating the good from the bad, upon the sounder elements bases a critical dogma of great and permanent value. The last chapters of the book, which are the most enduring exposition of the Romantic theory as it exists in English, place Coleridge in the first flight of critics.
Second only in importance to Biographia Literaria in establishing Coleridge as the greatest of English critics are his lectures on Shakespeare and other poets, delivered at intervals between 1808 and 1819. It is unfortunate that they were never prepared for publication by Coleridge himself, and that we have to rely on imperfect records, prepared from notes and reports by his daughter in 1836, and by Payne Collier in 1856. As a result, the lectures, as we have them, lack the finish of works properly prepared for publication. Nonetheless, they show Coleridge as a giant in the ranks of English critics. His examination of Shakespeare’s plays and of poems by other writers gives us something more than an acute, logical dissection according to certain predetermined canons; it is subtly suggestive, stimulating the reader to keener perceptions, and formulating for him his own vague, half-crystallized reactions. Every work of art he sees as an organic, developing whole, subject only to the laws of its own existence. A true Romantic, Coleridge revolts against the Augustan conception of poetry as an art to instruct. For him the aim of poetry is to provide pleasure—pleasure “through the medium of beauty.”
In addition, he wrote Aids to Reflection in1825. But he seemed to be incapable of writing a work of any size. After his death, his Table Talk was published (1835), giving fleeting glimpses of a brilliant and erratic mind.
We give a short extract from his prose. This shows not only his sincere and temperate admiration for the poems of Wordsworth, but also the nature of his prose style. As a style it is not wholly commendable. It is too involved, and clogged with qualifications and digressions; but though he develops his ideas in a curious indirect fashion, he makes rapid progress. At its best, Coleridge’s prose has much of the evocative suggestiveness of his finest poetry, and is an admirable stimulus to keener perception in the reader, while his choice of language is discriminating, particularly in the fine distinction he makes while describing the processes of artistic creation.