Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772-1834), English poet, critic, and philosopher, who was a leader of the romantic movement.

Coleridge was born in Ottery Saint Mary on October 21, 1772, the son of a clergyman. From 1791 until 1794 he attended Jesus College, University of Cambridge, except for a brief period when he was deeply in debt and entered the army. At the university he absorbed political and theological ideas then considered radical, especially those of Unitarianism. He left Cambridge without a degree and joined the poet Robert Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian society in Pennsylvania. In 1795 the two friends married sisters; for Coleridge, the marriage proved unhappy. Southey departed for Portugal, but Coleridge remained in England to write and lecture. In 1796 he published Poems on Various Subjects.

The previous year Coleridge had met and begun what was to be a lifelong friendship with the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. The two men published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads (1798), that became a landmark in English poetry; it contained the first great works of the romantic school (see Romanticism), such as the famous “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The years 1797 and 1798, during which the friends lived near Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge's life. In addition to the “Ancient Mariner” he wrote the symbolic poem “Kubla Khan”; began the mystical narrative poem “Christabel”; and composed the quietly lyrical “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,””Frost at Midnight,” and “The Nightingale,” considered three of his best “conversational” poems.

In the fall of 1798 Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a trip on the Continent; Coleridge soon went his own way, spending much of his time in Germany. During this period he lost his early sympathy with political radicalism and became interested in German philosophy, especially the 18th-century idealism of Immanuel Kant and the 17th-century mystical writings of Jakob Boehme, and in the literary criticism of the 18th-century dramatist G. E. Lessing. Coleridge studied German and translated into English the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the romantic poet Friedrich von Schiller. By this time Coleridge had become addicted to opium, a drug he used to ease the pain of rheumatism. In 1800 he returned to England, and shortly thereafter settled with his family and friends at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland. In 1804 he went to the island of Malta as secretary to the governor. He returned to England in 1806. Between 1808 and 1819 he gave his famous series of lectures on literature and philosophy; the lectures on Shakespeare were partly responsible for a renewed interest in the playwright. In this period Coleridge also wrote about religion and political theory. Financial donations and grants supplemented his literary income.

In 1816 Coleridge, still addicted to opium and now estranged from his family, took residence in the London home of an admirer, the physician James Gillman. There he wrote his major prose work, Biographia Literaria (1817), a series of autobiographical notes and dissertations on many subjects, including some brilliantly perceptive literary criticism. The sections in which Coleridge defines his views on the nature of poetry and the imagination and discusses the works of Wordsworth are especially notable. Other writings were published while he was in seclusion at the Gillman home, notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and Church and State (1830). He died in London on July 25, 1834.

Coleridge was esteemed by some of his contemporaries and is generally recognized today as a lyrical poet and literary critic of the first rank. His poetic themes range from the supernatural to the domestic. His treatises, lectures, and compelling conversational powers made him perhaps the most influential English literary critic and philosopher of the 19th century.

Coleridge's eldest son, Hartley Coleridge, was an accomplished scholar, best known for his verse, which is singularly fine in mood and happy in expression. His Poems appeared in 1833 and a biographical study, Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire, in 1836.1

1"Coleridge, Samuel Taylor."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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