Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In association with William Wordsworth, Coleridge is credited with starting the English Romantic Movement in poetry. Not only a poet he was an acclaimed critic and philosopher.
The youngest of ten children Samuel was born in Ottery St Mary, Devonshire on 21 October 1772. His father was a well respected vicar whom he adored. He did not get on so well with his mother who was intolerant of his attention seeking behaviour. Obviously an imaginative, intelligent and precocious child Samuel was spoilt and praised by his parents. His jealous elder brother Frank would tease him constantly.
To avoid this harassment Samuel would escape to the local library for a bit of peace and quiet. Here he discovered his passion for poetry. By the age of six he had read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, Philip Quarll and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. One of the Arabian Nights’ tales so frightened him that he suffered nightmares.
Sent to Boarding School aged nine
When Samuel was nine, his father died and he was sent, against his wishes, to boarding school. The school was Christ’s Hospital Grammar School (known as the Bluecoat School) in London. Although an excellent academic institution it was notorious for its unwelcoming atmosphere and strict regimen. His mother did not want him at home and he was rarely allowed a visit during term time.
Samuel was very unhappy there and his schooldays left him with feelings of guilt and depression. His emotional development was critically damaged at this time, probably a factor in his adult dependant personality. Despite his unhappiness Coleridge later praised the school for the literary and critical skills he had learned there.
Attended Jesus College in Cambridge University
After ten years in boarding school Samuel attended Jesus College in Cambridge University from 1791 – 1794. In 1792 he won an award for an Ode he had written on the slave trade but in 1793 he suddenly left University and entered the army. The reasons were not clear and it may have been due to debt or an unhappy relationship with a woman. His brothers managed to extricate him on the grounds of insanity and returned him Jesus College where he failed to graduate.
While at University he came into contact with liberal political and theological ideas. He met and formed a friendship with the radical poet Robert Southey. They were idealistic and made impossible plans to establish a Utopian commune-like society in Pennyslvania, America.
In 1795 Robert Southey married his fiancee Edith Fricker and Coleridge thought it was good idea and married her sister Sara. The loveless marriage was not a sucess. Although three children were produced Coleridge eventually divorced her. He did fall in love with a Sara Hutchinson but his love was not returned and she went off to Portugal. Coleridge’s emotional immaturity and irresponsibility were a constant trouble to him, even in later life.
English Romantic Movement
In 1795 a most fortuitous meeting occurred with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. As usual the impetuous Coleridge formed an immediate friendship and together they launched the English Romantic Movement with their publication Lyrical Ballads. Although the majority of the poetry was by Wordsworth it contained Coleridge’s famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The years between 1795 and 1798, living in Somerset at Nether Stowey with Wordsworth living nearby, were some of the most creative in Coleridge’s long life.
Coleridge suffered poor health, painful toothache, facial neuralgia and rheumatism. In 1796 he started taking opium for pain relief to which unfortunately he became addicted. The dangers of opium were not recognised at that time nor were its depressive properties. Coleridge’s unfinished descriptive poem Kubla Kan was the result of an opium dream, unfinished because a visitor arrived while he was writing it down and by the time the visitor left, Coleridge had forgotten the rest of the dream.
In 1798 Coleridge decided he wanted a change in his life so he went to live in Germany, taking the Wordsworths with him. He didn’t stay with them long and started travelling around German universities learning fluent German, philosophy and theology. Wordsworth was very homesick and returned home to the Lake District.
While away in Germany Coleridge’s second son Berkeley died from a smallpox vaccination. It is unclear if he was informed of the baby’s death but he did not return home to Nether Stowey until July 1799. His home life was disastrous and he ran away to join the Wordsworths. In 1800 he took is family north to the Lake District to be near his friends in Keswick. Family life was not going well so he ran away again, spending two years in Malta, Sicily and Italy. The warm climate did not help his health and he remained addicted to opium.
Respected Literary Critic
Despite his problems Coleridge was a much respected literary critic and lecturer. His critiques of Shakespeare led to a renewed interest in the playwright’s works. He had a huge influence on the literature of the day. In 1816, alienated from his family and friends with his opium addition getting worse, he went to live with a physician, James Gillman, in Highgate, London. He spent the rest of his life living with Gillam and managed to complete his major prose work, Biographia Literaria a huge work of 25 chapters including biographical detail and critiques and definitions of the art of literature. During the 18 years he lived in Dr Gillman’s house he was a recluse and close to suicide. Nevertheless he published a further three works before dying of heart failure on 25 July 1834.
Buried in St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
Samuel Taylor Coleridge is buried in the aisle of St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London. Originally buried at Old Highgate Chapel he was re-interred at St Michael’s in 1961. The site is marked with a large slate stone set in the floor and inscribed with the epitaph he wrote a year before his death. There is a memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, in the south transept of Westminster Abbey, London.