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Creator / Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Portrait by Peter Vandyke in 1795.

"No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, theologian, and philosopher. He and fellow poet William Wordsworth were credited as the founders of Romanticism in England, with the publication of their Lyrical Ballads in 1798. In addition to poetry, Coleridge wrote a number of works of literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and politics.

Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772 in the town of Ottery St Mary, the youngest of fourteen children to Reverend John Coleridge, the town vicar, and his second wife, Anne Bowden. Coleridge spent his early boyhood keeping to himself and reading, immersing himself to the point of morbid fascination in romances and Eastern tales, like Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights. When his father died in 1781, Coleridge went to Christ's Hospital School in London, where he remained throughout his childhood, studying and writing poetry. During this time, he was first prescribed opium, in the form of laudanum, as a remedy for fever; this would develop into an addiction in the later years.

He then went to study at Jesus College in Cambridge in 1791 but left in his third year, having acquired a large amount of debt. He attempted to pay it off by enlisting in the 15th (The King's) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons, under the pseudonym "Silas Tomkyn Comberbache", but he was not fit for military life; he kept on falling off his horse, and he could not groom it or the accoutrements. However, he managed to get those duties off his hands by telling the soldiers stories, nursing them when they were sick, and writing love letters for them to send to their wives. Eventually, his true identity was revealed. His brothers then arranged to have Coleridge discharged for the reason of "insanity" and paid off his debt.

Coleridge was then readmitted to Jesus College in April 1794. At one point, he met another poet named Robert Southey (better known as one of the original authors of Goldilocks), with whom he developed "Pantisocracy", a project in which they move to Pennsylvania and establish a system of government where all rule equally. When he learned that Southey married a woman named Edith Fricker, as marriage was integral to the project, Coleridge agreed to marry her sister, Sara Fricker. The Pantisocracy project was abandoned when Coleridge and Southey could not agree on the location, with Southey having doubts about the commune's viability and proposing that it be established in Wales instead. Coleridge was left married to a woman he never really loved. He never returned to Cambridge to get his degree and spent the next few years starting his writing career.

Coleridge first met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in 1795. Coleridge and Wordsworth became good friends, and they published the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, starting the Romantic movement in England. His most important contribution to the Lyrical Ballads was the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the same year, the trio visited Germany, where Coleridge developed an interest in the ideas of German philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Friedrich Schiller; he returned to England and took some of their ideas with him. In 1799, Coleridge joined the Wordsworths, who were staying at the Hutchinson farm in Durham. Wordsworth was waiting for an inheritance to be settled so he could wed Mary Hutchinson; and Coleridge fell in love with her sister Sara, who appears in his journals and poems as "Asra."

Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty completing them, and he berated himself for his "indolence." It is unclear whether his growing use of opium was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression. "Dejection: An Ode," written in 1802, expresses his despair at the loss of his creative powers. In 1804 he travelled to Sicily and Malta, working for a time as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Commissioner, Alexander Ball. He gave this up and returned to England in 1806; Dorothy Wordsworth was shocked at his condition upon his return. His opium addiction (he was using as much as two quarts of laudanum a week) now began to take over his life: he separated from his wife in 1808, quarrelled with Wordsworth in 1810, lost part of his annuity in 1811, put himself under the care of Dr Daniel in 1814, and finally moved in with Dr Gilman in Highgate, London, where the doctor and his family managed for the next 18 years to keep his demon under control.

At this same time, he was establishing himself as the most intellectual of the English Romantics, delivering an influential series of lectures on Shakespeare in the winter of 1811-12 and bringing out his Biographia Literaria in 1817. Among his contemporaries, he was best known as a talker, in the tradition of Samuel Johnson: his "Highgate Thursdays" became famous. He died on 25 July 1834.

Major Works:

  • Kubla Khan (1797): This poem was completed in 1797, but was published in 1816 at the prompting of Lord Byron. It is one of Coleridge's most famous poems. In the preface for the poem, he (referring to himself in the third person) fell asleep and experienced an opium-influenced dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, where the Mongol Emperor Kubla Khan founded the Yuan dynasty. Upon waking up, he set out to write the poem, but an unexpected visitor from Porlock led to him forgetting the rest of the poem.
  • Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1802): A poetry collection that is generally considered to have marked the beginning of the Romantic era in English literature, and a collaborative effort with William Wordsworth. Wordsworth wrote most of the poems in the collection, while Coleridge wrote only four in the 1798 edition: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", "The Foster-Mother's Tale", "The Nightingale", and "The Dungeon". The 1802 edition replaces "The Dungeon" with "Love".
    • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797-8, 1817): One of the poems in the Lyrical Ballads and another one of Coleridge's most famous poems. It is about a mariner who tells a wedding guest of his long sea voyage.
  • Christabel (1798, 1800): A narrative ballad using accentual meter. It is about a woman named Christabel who encounters a woman named Geraldine, who says that she has been abducted by a band of ruffians. Christabel offers to take Geraldine to her home to provide shelter, but along the way, Geraldine shows signs that there is something supernaturally off about her.
  • Biographia Literaria (1817): Coleridge's literary autobiography. It is his most famous work of literary criticism in which he provides an account of his literary and poetic style and makes some comments on the ideas of philosophers Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. This is also the origin of the term "Willing Suspension of Disbelief".

Tropes present in Coleridge's works:

  • Dreadful Musician: Coleridge once went to a concert that apparently featured a singer he thought was terrible, so he composed this epigram:
    Swans sing before they die:—'twere no bad thing,
    Should certain persons die before they sing.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Roland and Leoline in Christabel were friends when they were younger, but they had a falling out.
  • Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Discussed in his Biographia Literaria. He is also the Trope Namer.

Coleridge in fiction:

  • Coleridge appears as a supporting character in the fantasy novel The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. He plays an important role in the climax of the plot, reacting calmly to all the weirdness surrounding him because he assumes it's just a particularly vivid drug-induced hallucination.
  • In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, both The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan were messages from aliens, channelled by Coleridge while out of his mind on opium. The Man From Porlock - the titular protagonist on a time-travelling trip - distracted him deliberately to prevent the key part of the message from getting written down.
  • "One Morning with Samuel, Dorothy and William" by Avram Davidson is a day in the life of Coleridge, which turns out to be the day of Kubla Khan and the Man From Porlock.
  • Coleridge has a walk-on in The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. Ada Lovelace turns out to be The Person From Porlock, and she sets out to wreck Coleridge's concentration as he writes Kubla Khan, due to her hatred of poetry. It Makes Sense in Context.