Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(1772 - 1834)

Short Biography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Birth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary, Devon, the youngest son of some thirteen children of John Coleridge, a minister. 

Education
He attended Dame Key’s Reading School from 1775 (3), and the Henry VIII Free Grammar School, Ottery from 1778 (6). His father, who was headmaster of the school, died in 1781 (9), and Coleridge was then enrolled at Christ’s Hospital, London, where he studied the classic authors and also Milton and Shakespeare under the able guidance of The Rev. James Bowyer. It was towards the end of his schooling here that he was first prescribed laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) for his fevers while in the school sanitorium.

Christ's Hospital 
Christ's Hospital (School), Newgate, London as it was in 1770

College and the army
In 1791 (19) he entered Jesus College, Cambridge on a scholarship, but ran up large debts, and in 1793 (21), in financial difficulties, he enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons as Silus Tomkyn Comberbache, but he proved an incompetent soldier, and his brother quickly got him discharged by reason of insanity. He returned to Cambridge, only to leave again in 1794 (22) without a degree to tour Wales. 

Pantisocracy
He had begun planning the establishment of a ‘Pantisocracy’, a type of communist Utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennysylvania, with his friend and fellow poet Robert Southey and others. Joseph Cottle writes:

At the close of the year 1794, a clever young man of the Society of Friends, of the name of Robert Lovell, who had married a Miss Fricker, informed me that a few friends of his from Oxford and Cambridge, with himself, were about to sail to America, and, on the banks of the Susquehannah, to form a Social Colony, in which there was to be a community of property, and where all that was selfish was to be proscribed. None, he said, were to be admitted into their number, but tried and incorruptible characters; and he felt quite assured that he and his friends would be able to realize a state of society free from the evils and turmoils that then agitated the world, and to present an example of the eminence to which men might arrive under the unrestrained influence of sound principles.....Young as I was, I suspected there was an old and intractable leaven in human nature that would effectually frustrate these airy schemes of happiness, which had been projected in every age, and always with the same result.1

Cottle nevertheless continues with a certain generosity of spirit:

Robert Lovell (though inexperienced and constitutionally sanguine) was a good specimen of the open frankness which characterises the well-informed members of the Society of Friends; and he excited in me an additional interest, from a warmth of feeling, and an extent of reading, above even the ordinary standard of the estimable class to which he belonged. He now read me some of the MS poems of his two unknown friends, which at once established their genius in my estimation.2

The two unknown friends were Coleridge and Southey. He writes further:

If any difficulties were now started, and many such there were, a profusion of words demonstrated the reasonableness of the whole design; impressing all who heard, with the conviction that the citadel was too strong for assault. The Mercury at these times was generally Mr Coleridge, who .... ingeniously parried every adverse argument, and after silencing his hardy disputants, announced to them that he was about to write and publish a quarto volume in defence of Pantisocracy, in which a variety of arguments would be advanced in defence of his system, too subtle and recondite to comport with conversation.3

The project came to nothing, but Cottle encouraged the two poets, suggesting to Coleridge that he publish a volume of poetry, and offering him thirty guineas (about £1500 in 2010 terms) for the copyright. He extended even more generous terms to Southey, and supported a series of lectures to the people of Bristol, in which

S.T.Coleridge proposes to give, in Six Lectures, a comparative view of the English Rebellion under Charles the First, and the French Revolution.4

This was followed by a series of six Theological lectures on 'Revealed Religion, its Corruptions, and its Political Views'.

Marriage

He married Sarah Fricker, the sister of Edith Fricker who had already married Robert Southey, and Mary Fricker who had married Robert Lovell, on October 4th 1795 (23) at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. They moved into a cottage at Clevedon, on the Severn Estuary close to Bristol, but, in the event, Coleridge found this too out of the way, and they moved back to Redcliff-hill, Bristol at the end of the year.

First publication of poetry, and other projects
In April 1796 (24) his Poems on Various Subjects was brought to the press by Cottle. Coleridge wrote the following dedication to his friend and patron on the front free endpaper of his copy:

On the blank leaf of my poems, I can most appropriately write my acknowledgements to you, for your too disinterested conduct in the purchase of them. Indeed, if ever they should acquire a name and character, it might be truly said, the world owed them to you. Had it not been for you, none perhaps of them would have been published, and some not written.5

He had at this time plans and projects for multifarious publications. Cottle writes:

I remember him once to have read to me, from his pocket book, a list of eighteen different works which he had resolved to write, and several of them in quarto, not one of which he ever effected. At the top of the list appeared the word 'Pantisocracy! 4to'. Each of these works, he could have talked (for he often poured forth as much as half an 8vo volume in a single evening....) but talking merely benefits the few, to the exclusion of the many.6

The Watchman
In the event, Coleridge next produced The Watchman, a periodical to supply at once the places of 'a Review, Newspaper, and Annual Register', which ran for ten numbers, appearing every eight days (to avoid tax) between March and May 1796. In the final number, Coleridge writes:

While I express my gratitude to those friends who exerted themselves so liberally in the establishment of this Miscellany, I may reasonably be expected to assign some reason for relinquishing it thus abruptly. The reason is short and satisfactory - The work does not pay its expenses.

The Watchman 
The Watchman : Coleridge spent four weeks and travelled some four hundred miles in January 1796 (24), visiting Worcester, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Lichfield, to promote the sale of this journal.

Birth of his first child
His son, Hartley, so called after the philosopher David Hartley, was born on September 19th, 1796 (24). He writes to Tom Poole on 24th September:

When I first saw the child, I did not feel that thrill and overflowing of affection which I expected. I looked on it with a melancholy gaze; my mind was intensely contemplative and my heart only sad. But when two hours after I saw it at the bosom of its mother, on her arm, and her eye tearful and watching its little features, then I was thrilled and melted, and gave it the KISS of a father.... The baby seems strong, and the old nurse has over-persuaded my wife to discover a likeness of me in its face - no great compliment to me, for, in truth, I have seen handsomer babies in my lifetime.

Nether Stowey
In December 1796 (24) he moved to Nether Stowey at the suggestion of Tom Poole, a successful businessman and literary enthusiast. From Stowey, he writes to Cottle (in a letter dated 1796):

We arrived safe. Our house is set to rights. We are all - wife, bratling, and self, remarkably well. Mrs Coleridge likes Stowey, and loves Thomas Poole and his mother, who love her. A communication has been made from our orchard into T. Poole's garden, and from thence to Cruickshank's, a friend of mine, and a young married man, whose wife is very amiable, and she and Sara are already on the most cordial terms; from all this you will conclude that we are happy.7

and to John Thelwall, on February 6, 1797 (25)

I never go to Bristol. From seven till half past eight I work in my garden; from breakfast till twelve I read and compose, then read again, feed the pigs, poultry etc, till two o'clock; after dinner work again till tea; from tea till supper, review. So jogs the day, and I am happy. I have society - my friend T. Poole, and as many acquaintances as I can dispense with. There are a number of very pretty young women at Stowey, all musical, and I am an immense favourite; for I pun, counundrumize, listen, and dance. The last is a recent acquirement... You would smile to see my eye rolling up to the ceiling in a lyric fury, and on my knee a diaper pinned to warm... I raise potatoes and all manner of vegetables, have an orchard, and shall raise corn with the spade, enough for my family. We have two pigs, and ducks and geese.8

Depression and elements of poetic theory
Coleridge was subject to many physical disorders and repeated and heavy bouts of depression. No doubt today he would be diagnosed as manic-depressive, or as having bi-polar disorder. He writes to Cottle in May 1797:

...when last in Bristol, the day I meant to devote to you, was such a day of sadness, I could do nothing. On the Saturday, the Sunday, and ten days after my arrival at Stowey, I felt a depression too dreadful to be described. So much I felt my genial spirits droop, / My hopes all flat; Nature within me seemed / In all her functions, weary of herself. Wordsworth's conversation aroused me somewhat, but even now I am not the man I have been, and I think I never shall. A sort of calm hopelessness diffuses itself over my heart. Indeed every mode of life which has promised me bread and cheese, has been, one after another, torn away from me, but God remains. I have no immediate pecuniary distress, having received ten pounds from Lloyd. I employ myself now on a book of morals in answer to Godwin, and on my tragedy....

He goes on to outline one element of his poetic theory, the idea that, for the poet, story and event should be secondary to feeling, an idea that was certainly used later as a guiding principle by Wordsworth, in particular during the composition of the second volume of poems for Lyrical Ballads with other Poems of 1800.

There are some poets who write too much at their ease, from the facility with which they please themselves. They do not often enough Feel their burdened breast / Heaving beneath incumbent Deity. So that to posterity their wreaths will look unseemly. Here, perhaps, an everlasting Amaranth, and, close by its side, some weed of an hour, sere, yellow, and shapeless. Their very beauties will lose half their effect, from the bad company they keep. They rely too much on story and event, to the neglect of those lofty imaginings that are peculiar to, and definite of the Poet.

The story of Milton might be told in two pages. It is this which distinguishes an epic poem from a romance in metre. Observe the march of Milton; his severe application; his laborious polish; his deep metaphysical researches; his prayer to God before he began his great work; all that could lift and swell his intellect, became his daily food.

I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten years to collect the materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician. I would thoroughly understand Mechanics; Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy; Botany; Metallurgy; Fossilism; Chemistry; Geology; Anatomy; Medicine; then the mind of man; then the minds of men, in all Travels, Voyages, and Histories. So I would spend ten years; the next five in the composition of the poem, and the five last in the correction of it. So would I write, haply not unhearing of that divine and nightly-whispering voice, which speaks to mighty minds, of predestined garlands, starry and unwithering.

It was, of course, a project which he was never going to complete, along with many others.

William and Dorothy Wordsworth

During June 1797, he visited the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, at Racedown in Dorset. He writes to Joseph Cottle on the 8th June 1797 :

I am sojourning for a few days at Racedown, the mansion of our friend Wordsworth.... [he] admires my tragedy, which gives me great hopes. .. [he] has written a tragedy himself. I speak with heartfelt sincerity, and (I think) unblinded judgment, when I tell you that I feel myself a little man by his side, and yet do not think myself the less man than I formerly thought myself.9

Dorothy Wordsworth writes in a letter to Mary Hutchinson concerning Coleridge (in June 1797):

He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful, and, like William, interests himself so much about every little trifle.10  

The Wordsworths shortly after (on the 13th July) moved to Alfoxden House three miles west of Nether Stowey to be nearer to him. Dorothy Wordsworth writes (letter to Mary Hutchinson, 14 August 1797):

We spent a fortnight at Coleridge's: in the course of that time we heard that this house (Alfoxden) was to let, applied for it, and took it. Our principal inducement was Coleridge's society.11

map of Great Britain
map of Great Britain showing the location of some of the places associated with Coleridge

Spies
Dr Daniel Lysons wrote to the Duke of Portland at the Home Office on the 11th August 1797:

On the 8th inst. I took the liberty to acquaint your Grace with a very suspicious business concerning an emigrant family, who have contrived to get possession of a Mansion House at Alfoxton... I am since informed, that the master of the House has no wife with him, but only a woman who passes for his sister - The man has Camp Stools, which he and his visitors carry with them when they go about the country upon their nocturnal or diurnal expeditions, and have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say were almost finished - They have been heard to say they should be rewarded for them, and were very attentive to the river near them....

And James Walsh, a government agent, to the Duke of Portland, 16 August 1797:

I last Night saw Thomas Jones who lives at Alfoxton House... the Sunday after Wordsworth came, he Jones was desired to wait at Table, that there were 14 persons at dinner. Poole and Coldridge were there, and there was a little Stout Man with dark cropt Hair and wore a White Hat and Glasses who after Dinner got up and talked so loud and was in such a Passion that Jones was frightened and did not like to go near them since. That Wordsworth has lately been to his former House and brought back with him a Woman Servant, that Jones has seen this Woman who is very Chatty, and that she told him that Her Master was a Phylosopher.

The little stout man was John Thelwall.

Unitarian sermons and the Wedgewoods
In 1798 (26) he was busy giving Unitarian sermons in Shrewsbury. The receipt of a life annuity of £150 (worth about £7500 in 2010 terms) from Tom and Josiah Wedgewood, who had met him whilst visiting Wordsworth at Alfoxden house, gave him a certain amount of financial security for the first time, and he began planning a visit to Germany. 

Lyrical Ballads
It was during this period that he wrote some of what were to become his most popular works, including the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Frost at Midnight. In 1798 (26) he published Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems anonymously with William Wordsworth, which volume included his Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere

Tour of Germany
He left on a tour of Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth in September 1798 (26), though they quickly separated, the Wordsworths going to Goslar and he making his way to Ratzeburg, where he stayed five months, dedicating himself to an intensive study of the language. He moved to Göttingen in January 1799 (27). A young English fellow-student at Göttingen writes of him in a letter to a relative in England:

It is very delightful to hear him sometimes discourse on religious topics for an hour together. His fervour is particularly agreeable when compared with the chilling speculations of German philosophers. I have had occasion to see these successively forced to abandon all their strong holds when he brought to the attack his arguments and his philosophy. Coleridge is much liked, notwithstanding many peculiarities. He is very liberal towards all doctrines and opinions, and cannot be put out of temper. These circumstances give him the advantage of his opponents here, who are always bigotted and often irrascible. Coleridge is an enthusiast on many subjects, and must, therefore, appear to many to possess faults, and no doubt he has faults, but he has a good heart, and a large mass of information with superior talents. The great fault which his friends may lament, is the variety of subjects which he adopts, and the too abstruse nature of his ordinary speculations... He is, at present, engaged on a work, which will be no less interesting in Germany than in England - a History of German Poetry, from the earliest times to the present day... (quoted in Early Years and Late Reflections by Clement Carlyon, London 1836, note p101) 

Map of northern Germany
Map of northern Germany

Coleridge himself appears to have been unimpressed with the Germans in general. He writes in a letter to his wife (March 12, 1799):

I languish after home for hours together in vacancy, my feelings almost wholly unqualified by thoughts. I have at times experienced such an extinction of light in my mind - I have been so forsaken by all the forms and colourings of existence, as if the organs of life had been dried up; as if only simply Being remained, blind and stagnant. After I have recovered from this strange state and reflected on it, I have thought of a man who should lose his companion in a desart of sand, where his weary Halloos drop down in the air without echo. I am deeply convinced that if I were to remain a few years among objects for whom I had no affection I should wholly lose the powers of intellect. Love is the vital air of my genius, and I have not seen one human being in Germany whom I can conceive it possible for me to love, no, not one; in my mind they are an unlovely race, these Germans.

First meeting with Sara Hutchinson and he tours the Lake District on foot
On his return to England in July 1799 (27), he made a visit to the Wordsworths, who were at the time staying at a farm in Sockburn, Yorkshire with their friends the Hutchinson family. It was here that he met Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth's future wife, with whom he developed an affinity. In the autumn of that year, he accompanied William Wordsworth on a walking tour of the Lake District. He returned to London in November, and, in January 1800 (28) began writing for the Morning Post.

Moves to the Lake District
By December 1799, the Wordsworths had moved to Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the Lake District, and in July 1800 (28), Coleridge and his family moved to Greta Hall, Keswick close by. He writes in a letter to William Godwin (September 1800, 28):

Our house is situated on a rising ground, not two furlongs from Keswick, about as much from the Lake Derwentwater, and about two miles from the Lake Bassenthwaite - both lakes and mountains we command. The river Greta runs behind our house, and before it too, and Skiddaw is behind us - not half a mile distant indeed just distant enough to enable us to view it as a Whole. The garden, orchard, fields and immediate country all delightful. I have, or have the use of, no inconsiderable collection of books.


Greta Hall, Keswick, drawn and engraved by Richard Westall

Of the Lake District in general, he observes in the same letter:

Of North Wales my recollections are faint, and as to Wicklow I only know from the newspapers that it is a mountainous country. As far as my memory will permit me to decide on the grander parts of Carnarvonshire, I may say that the single objects are superior to any which I have seen elsewhere, but there is a deficiency in combination. I know of no mountain in the North equal to Snowdon, but then we have an encampment of huge mountains, in no harmony perhaps to the eye of the mere painter, but always interesting, various and, as it were nutritive. Height is assuredly an advantage, as it connects the earth with the sky, by the clouds that are ever skimming the summits or climbing up, or creeping down the sides, or rising from the chasm, like smoke from a cauldron, or veiling or bridging the higher parts or lower parts of waterfalls. That you were less impressed by North Wales I can easily believe; it is possible that the scenes of Wicklow may be superior, but it is certain that you were in a finer irritability of spirit to enjoy them. The first pause and silence after a return from a very interesting visit is somewhat connected with langour in us all. Besides, as you have observed, mountains and mountainous scenery taken collectively and cursorily, must depend for their charms on their novelty. They put on their immortal interest then first, when we have resided among them, and learnt to understand their language, their written character and intelligible sounds, and all their eloquence, so various, so unwearied. Then you will hear no 'twice told tale'. I question whether there is a room in England which commands a view of mountains, and lakes, and woods and vales superior to that in which I am now sitting.


Distant view of Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lakes, Keswick and Skiddaw

He tours Wales and Scotland

In 1802 (30) he toured Wales with Tom and Sally Wedgewood, and in 1803 (31) Scotland with the Wordsworths. 

Addiction, Malta and Italy
By this time he was ill and addicted to laudanum, and, in an attempt to regain his health, he sailed for the Mediterranean, arriving in Malta on 18th May 1804 (32).

The background to Coleridge's Malta period is poignant. Loss of self esteem as a poet, a problematic, asymmetric relationship with his collaborator, William Wordsworth, marital disharmony, declining health and an alarming drug addiction led him, at the age of thirty-one, to seek either death or renaissance abroad. (BHCL, The Journey to Valletta)

He became Undersecretary to the British High Commissioner in Malta, Sir Alexander Ball, who appears to have valued his contribution to the administration of the island at a difficult period, and made some efforts to retain him in his administration, but Coleridge, who complained in his diaries almost continuously of being overworked, refused, and left Malta in September 1805 (33) to tour Italy, returning to England in August 1806 (34). Dorothy Wordsworth writes to Catherine Clarkson on 6th November 1806:

... never, never did I feel such a shock as at first sight of him... that he is ill I am well assured; and must sink if he does not grow more happy. His fatness has quite changed him - it is more like the flesh of a person in a dropsy than one in health; his eye are lost in it..... He is utterly changed; and yet sometimes, when he was animated in conversation concerning thngs removed from him, I saw something of his fomer self. But never when we were alone with him. He then scarcely ever spoke of anything that concerned him, or us, or our common friends nearly, except we forced him to it; and immediately he changed the conversation to Malta, Sir Alexander Ball, the corruption of government, anything but what we were yearning after. (BHCL, p47)

Separation
He was back in Keswick in December 1807 (35), and shortly after arranged a separation from his wife, though he continued to maintain her.

The Friend and problems with Wordsworth
Between 1808 (36) and 1809 (37) he wrote and edited The Friend, a literary, moral and political weekly, with the help of Sara Hutchinson. But his addiction continued, and he was finally rejected by both Sara and the Wordsworths in 1810 (38). 

London
The Montagu family helped him to move to London, and he accepted accommodation first with them, and then with the Morgans in Hammersmith. In 1812 (40) his Wedgewood annuity was reduced to £75. He worked as a journalist for The Courier, and gave a series of notable lectures on literary subjects, which were well received. In 1816 (44) he moved in for a month with Dr James Gillman, an apothecary, and stayed for the next eighteen years. He continued to write and lecture on a variety of literary and political subjects, and published the Sibylline Leaves in 1817 (45), which contained some new work. He also had a successful play, Remorse (formerly Osario), staged at Drury Lane, and his table talk was much in demand. 

Henry Edward Fox writes in his journal for Thursday 28th January 1818:

In the evening to Mr Coleridge's lectures. His voice is bad, is subject trite, and his manner odious and affectation of wit and of genius, neither of which he has in any degree. (HFJ, p32)

Death
He died in Highgate, London on 25th July 25 1834 (62), providing his own epitaph:

Beneath this sod
A Poet lies; or that which once was he.
O lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.
That he, who many a year with toil of breath,
Found Death in Life, may here find Life in Death.

Notes

1. Cottle, Joseph Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, Lime Tree Bower Press, 1970 (p 2/3) first published London, Houlston and Stoneman, 1847. Print.
2. ibid (p4)
3. ibid (p8)
4. ibid (p17)
5. ibid (p70)
6. ibid (p73)
7. ibid (p100)
8. S.T.Coleridge et al, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Man Behind the Lyrics, p 830/1, e-artnow, 2015, 6/8/2015
9. Raine, Kathleen, The Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p82, Grey Walls Press, London, 1950
10. Barker, Juliet, Wordsworth, A Life in Letters, p39, Penguin Books, London, 2003 
11. Ibid (p40)

Abbreviations used

For entertaining information about the sale of the Watchman:

 http://www.friendsofcoleridge.com

The poet biographies, criticism, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott
www.adnax.com