In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge met William Wordsworth and though still in their early 20’s they published a joint volume of poetry in 1798 called ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ which marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in England.
Four years younger than John Constable, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devon, son of the vicar of Ottery St Mary. He was the youngest of a family of thirteen children. His father died when he was aged nine and he was sent to Christ’s Hospital Charity School in London where he remained, rarely returning home, a separation which proved emotionally damaging in adulthood.
In 1795, Coleridge married the poet Robert Southey’s sister in law – the marriage did not last and the couple separated two years later. He then fell in love with Sara Hutchinson (sister of the future wife of William Wordsworth) but the relationship was thwarted by people close to Wordsworth. Sara herself was unsure and Coleridge’s wife would not divorce him. As a result, the affair ended and Coleridge sank in a deep, dark depression.
The Ancient Mariner
Wordsworth may have contributed more poems to The Lyrical Ballads, but the star of the joint collection was Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which drew more praise and attention than anything else. For no reason at all, the Ancient Mariner kills an albatross that has been following his ship, bringing good luck to him and his fellow sailors.
“And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work ’em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird That made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!”
The poem has a haunting quality that takes the reader to the essence of the human condition and prompts questions about the relationship between Man, God and nature. To this day the scenery remains thrillingly hellish, while laced with realistic meteorological effects – and the narrative drive is hypnotic and irresistible.
“Are those her ribs through which the Sun Did peer, as through a grate? And is that Woman all her crew? Is that a DEATH? and are there two? Is DEATH that woman’s mate? Her lips were red, her looks were free, Her locks were yellow as gold: Her skin was as white as leprosy, The nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, Who thicks man’s blood with cold (extracts from The Rime of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Together with the Ancient Mariner and Christabel critics see Kubla Khan (see image four above) as one of Coleridge’s three great poems. He completed it in 1797 but did not publish it until 1816. According to Coleridge’s “Preface to Kubla Khan”, the poem was composed one night after he experienced an opium-influenced dream and after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Khan. On waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a person from Porlock. The poem could not be completed according to its original 200–300 line plan as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. He left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends. However, in 1816, and with the help of the poet Lord Byron, Coleridge published a collection of poems containing Christabel, The Pains of Sleep and a newly edited Kubla Khan. The following year (1817) he published another collection of poems entitled Sibylline Leaves together with his greatest work in literary criticism prose: Biographia Literaria (1817).
A Brilliant Mind
As well as being an acclaimed poet and literary critic, Coleridge also ran a newspaper, wrote articles on history, morality and religion and enjoyed great success as a lecturer – his addresses on William Shakespeare and John Milton were especially popular. He was also a noted philosopher, his major philosophical works being On Method (1818) and Aids to Reflection (1825).
Money, Health and Opium
Coleridge was continually in debt and suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression. To soothe his rheumatism and neuralgic disorders, doctors prescribed opium to to which Coleridge became addicted. It is unclear whether his growing use of opium contributed to his death from heart failure and a lung disorder at the age of 62. He is buried in St Michael’s Church, Highgate in London – see image six above for his gravestone inside the church
Click the tab marked ‘video’ above the image gallery at the top of this page to hear The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Frost at Midnight..