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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

Category: Poet

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner  and Kubla Khan, as well as for his major prose work Biographia Literaria.

Throughout his adult life, Coleridge suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression; and chose to treat these episodes with opium/laudanum, becoming an addict in the process.  He had a good deal to be depressed about, his private life was dogged by ill fortune, not always of his own making.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online

Sara Fricker

A chance meeting with the poet Robert Southey led the two men to plan a “pantisocracy”. To this end Coleridge left Cambridge for good and set up with Southey as a public lecturer in Bristol. In October 1795 he married Sara Fricker, daughter of a local schoolmistress, swayed partly by Southey’s suggestion that he was under an obligation to her since she had been refusing the advances of other men.  Shortly afterward, Southey defected from the pantisocratic scheme, leaving Coleridge married to a woman whom he did not love. In a sense, he never fully recovered from this blow..................  [later in his life] Southey atoned for his disastrous youthful advice by exercising a general oversight of Coleridge’s family for the rest of his days.

This appalling event had consequences throughout his life and was to create tensions and problems which beset any hopes he had of progressing spiritually. One major problem it created was his finances, which caused him anguish throughout his life.   Coleridge and his wife did have children, which meant the burden financially was that much greater.  Sara Coleridge (23 December 1802 – 3 May 1852), for example, became known in her own right as an English author and translator. She was the fourth child and only daughter of Samuel and Sara.

From A Character
Ah, silly Bard, unfed, untended
His lamp but glimmered in its socket
He lived unhonoured and unfriended
With scarce a penny in his pocket
Nay – though he hid it from the many
With scarce a pocket for his penny!

But Coleridge longed for love to advance him spiritually, but never found the sort of tangle free love he sought

Encyclopedia Britannica Online
... the tensions of his marriage were exacerbated when he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife, at the end of 1799. His devotion to the Wordsworths in general did little to help matters, and for some years afterward Coleridge was troubled by domestic strife, accompanied by the worsening of his health and by his increasing dependence on opium.  In 1802, Coleridge’s domestic unhappiness gave rise to “Dejection: An Ode,” originally a longer verse letter sent to Sara Hutchinson in which he lamented the corrosive effect of his intellectual activities when undertaken as a refuge from the lovelessness of his family life. The poem employs the technique of his conversational poems; the sensitive rhythms and phrasing that he had learned to use in them are here masterfully deployed to represent his own depressed state of mind.
Although Coleridge hoped to combine a platonic love for Sara with fidelity to his wife and children and to draw sustenance from the Wordsworth household, his hopes were not realized, and his health deteriorated further.............
Coleridge published a periodical, The Friend, from June 1809 to March 1810 and ceased only when Sara Hutchinson, who had been acting as amanuensis, found the strain of the relationship too much for her and retired to her brother’s farm in Wales. Coleridge, resentful that Wordsworth should apparently have encouraged his sister-in-law’s withdrawal, resolved shortly afterward to terminate his working relationship with William and Dorothy Wordsworth and to settle in London again.
The period immediately following was the darkest of his life. His disappointment with Wordsworth was followed by anguish when a wounding remark of Wordsworth’s was carelessly reported to him. For some time he remained in London, nursing his grievances and producing little. Opium retained its powerful hold on him, and the writings that survive from this period are redolent of unhappiness.

 

In writing and quoting this, the impression may be given that Coleridge's inspiration and wisdom were fuelled by drugs and unhappiness, but he was an extremely spiritual man whose belief in the existence of the spiritual world was complete.

My Maker!  Of thy power the trace
In every creature's form and face

And note that he does not say 'God'.  Coleridge was yet another man who believed in the spiritual but not the God invented by religions.

William Wordsworth

Coleridge was also fascinated by the human mind, and began an investigation into the nature of the human mind in which he was joined by William Wordsworth. 

Together they entered upon one of the most influential creative periods of English literature. Coleridge’s 'intellectual ebullience' and his belief in the existence of a powerful “life consciousness” in all individuals rescued Wordsworth from the depression into which recent events had cast him.  Another fascination of Coleridge’s was symbolism and the manner in which communication between the spiritual and physical world is achieved. 

This is reflected in one of his poems – Frost at Midnight:

so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

Coleridge’s attempts to learn this “language” and trace it through the ancient traditions of mankind also led him during this period to return to the visionary interests of his schooldays: as he ransacked works of comparative religion and mythology, he was exploring the possibility that all religions and mythical traditions, with their general agreement on the unity of the spiritual world and the immortality of the spirit, sprang from a universal life consciousness, which was expressed particularly through the phenomena of human genius.

The culmination of the use of this symbolism – or maybe the rediscovery of the symbolism – can be found in the poem Kubla Khan.  It was written in conditions which were ideal for Coleridge, away from his wife, in a secluded quiet and lonely farmhouse near Culbone, Somersetshire.  It was according to his own account, also composed under the influence of laudanum.  The exotic imagery and rhythmic chant of this poem “have led many critics to conclude that it should be read as a meaningless reverie and enjoyed merely for its vivid and sensuous qualities” [which tells us a lot about critics but nothing about Coleridge].  But an examination of the poem in the light of Coleridge’s mystical and mythological interests, shows it to be absolutely chock a block full of symbols.  I have done my best in the observation to list some, but almost the entire poem is symbolic.

Engraving by C Dawe RA

In the final stanza [which I have not included]  the poet writes of a state of “absolute genius in which, if inspired by a visionary Abyssinian maid, he would become endowed with the creative, divine power of a god—an Apollo or Osiris subduing all around him to harmony by the fascination of his spell”.  In effect Coleridge understood the nature of the mystical marriage and the longing of the masculine for the feminine.  He also appeared to understand what Annihilation meant and to have wanted it - longed for it in fact.  But he was using the wrong methods to achieve it - laudanum takes you down not up.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is also entirely symbolic.  The main narrative tells how a sailor slays an albatross, where the albatross is a symbol of the links with the spiritual world – the Higher spirit [Coleridge often refers to 'thy God' meaning the Higher spirit].  In effect, it describes what happens when you sever links with the spiritual world.  In some respects, Coleridge’s bouts of depression must have taken him there, so he knew first-hand what it is like to be cut off from the spiritual.  The sailor in the poem suffers from torments, physical and mental, in which the nature of his crime is made known to him. The ‘underlying life power’ against which he has transgressed is envisaged as a power corresponding to the influx of the Sun’s energy into all living creatures, thereby binding them together in a joyful communion. "By killing the bird that hovered near the ship, the mariner has destroyed one of the links in this process. His own consciousness is consequently affected: the sun, previously glorious, is seen as a bloody sun, and the energies of the deep are seen as corrupt".

Coleridge was also greatly inspired by Nature and like Wordsworth found more pleasure in solitude and quiet.

From A Thought suggested by a view
But oh! the sky and all its forms, how quiet
The things that seek the earth, how full of noise and riot

So nothing in life is simple, and those websites I have visited which seem to suggest that Coleridge's apparently drug fuelled poems are a justification for legalising drugs are painting a very one sided picture and an incorrect one at that.

William Hazlitt said in ‘Lectures on the English poets 1818
“He is the only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius… His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought.  His mind was clothed with wings, and raised on them he lifted philosophy to heaven.  In his descriptions, you then saw the progress of human happiness and liberty in bright and never-ending succession, like the steps of Jacob’s ladder, with airy shapes ascending and descending ”

 

References

The Wikipedia entry on Coleridge should be avoided, it is very badly researched, biased and wrong.

The best entry I could find with a much more comprehensive and well researched set of findings was that in the Online Encyclopaedia Britannica

 

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