Biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet writing in the late 18th and early 19th century, often associated with Romanticism. In the context of literary history, Coleridge is often seen as “the most intellectual of the English Romantics” due to his extensive forays into critical writing, especially his Biographia Literaria (1817) and lectures on Shakespeare.
This is not to say that Coleridge’s creative side received short shrift; friends and colleagues knew him as an unrelentingly passionate poet. In a letter to a friend, Dorothy Wordsworth gushed: “His eye is large and full, not dark but grey; such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind; it has more of the ‘poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling’ than I ever witnessed.”
Like the titular Ancient Mariner in his poem, Coleridge’s very eyes spoke of his compulsion to tell stories. But Coleridge did not take himself too seriously; in addition to publishing under his initials, STC (or “Estisi”), he was known to publish works mocking his own style under the lighthearted pseudonyms Silas Tomkyn Comerbache and Nehemiah Higginbottom.
Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772 in Devonshire, England. He was the youngest of 14 children. Coleridge proved to be a brilliant student from early on, and continued to excel at Jesus College, Cambridge. At the same time, however, he was experimenting with the pleasures of alcohol, women, and most famously, opium. After school, Coleridge joined the Dragoons for a short time and then hastily married Sara Southey, the younger sister of his friend, the future poet laureate Robert Southey.
He earned a living as a Unitarian preacher for a short time while remaining in an incompatible marriage, and began to focus seriously on his love of writing. In the late 1790s, Coleridge began his famous friendship with William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Their intellectual and artistic exchanges culminated in Lyrical Ballads 1798, in which “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was first published.
The collection was a major landmark in the Romantic Movement; in it, the two writers exemplified the examination of the mundane, natural, and intensely subjective. Many of the poems were also written in everyday language, avoiding the ornamented styles of speech and elaborate rhyme schemes favored by poets of earlier periods. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is one exception to this trend, as in it Coleridge derived both his rhyme scheme and his diction from Middle English. Soon after the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife.
Since he was already married, he was forced to channel his love for Sara Hutchinson into his poetry, where he referred to her by an anagram of her name, “Asra.” Coleridge published the second version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1817 in the volume Sibylline Leaves. In it, he removed much of the original poem’s deliberate archaism and added marginal glosses.
After travels abroad in Sicily and Malta, Coleridge returned to England in a state that worried his closest friends. His opium addiction had escalated to the point of straining his relationships with his wife and friends. Most notably, in 1810 Coleridge and Wordsworth suffered a falling out, and never entirely regained their former closeness. Eventually, on the verge of suicide, he moved in with a doctor who managed his care for the last eighteen years of his life. While in the doctor’s care, Coleridge published the unfinished poems “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan,” which became icons of Romantic poetry.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge died on July 25, 1834 at the age of 61. Upon his death, his good friend Charles Lamb claimed he could not grieve for Coleridge, saying: “It seemed to me that he long had been on the confines of the next world—that he had a hunger for eternity.” According to Lamb, Coleridge spent his life striving for the eternal and sublime, so that death was for him the fulfillment of his deepest desire, rather than a dreaded end.