Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the founders of the Romantic movement in poetry, with his friend William Wordsworth, with whom he published the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballads in 1798. He is best remembered today for his long narrative poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and for his opium-dream poem, “Kubla Khan,” but he was also a noted critic and philosopher, and the influence of his thought and attitude can be seen in many succeeding generations of poets.
Coleridge was born in 1772, son of a vicar in a small Devon town. He was the youngest of many children (some say 10, some 14), much adored and even spoiled by his parents. He was a dreamy child who loved reading: “I found the Arabian Nights’ entertainments--one tale of which... made so deep an impression on me... that I was haunted by spectres whenever I was in the dark--and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay--and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask, and read” (from his Biographia Literaria).
Education and the Dragoons:
Coleridge’s father died when he was only nine, and Samuel was sent away to a very strict London boarding school, Christ’s Hospital. He attended Jesus College, Cambridge for several years in the early 1790s, where he met lifelong friend and fellow poet Robert Southey, and came in contact with the radical political and social ideas fermenting just after the French Revolution. In 1793, depressed by his lack of funds and a failed love affair, he left college and enlisted in the dragoons. His brother rescued him from this misguided commitment and he returned to Cambridge, but never completed his university studies.
Utopianism and an Unhappy Marriage:
Southey and Coleridge dreamed up and hoped to make real a utopia based on the ideals of Plato’s Republic, and called it “pantisocracy,” meaning equal rule by all members of the community. They intended to move to the New World with their wives and a select few other couples to realize this vision; it never happened. But Coleridge and Southey did marry sisters, Sara and Edith Fricker, in 1795. Coleridge was actually in love with another woman, Mary Evans, who was obligated elsewhere, and his marriage ended unhappily in a legal separation in 1806.
Coleridge and the Wordsworths:
Coleridge also began what would become a much more important relationship in 1795: his friendship and literary collaboration with William Wordsworth (and his sister Dorothy). He met the Wordsworths when they moved to Dorset, and later moved up to the Lake District for several years to be close to them. In 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth jointly published Lyrical Ballads, which contained Wordsworth’s influential preface outlining the Romantic theory of poetry, and Coleridge’s much discussed and admired poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Coleridge and Opium:
Around the same time that he met the Wordsworths, Coleridge began using opium (usually in the form of laudanum) as a painkiller for his many little ailments. He explicitly admitted that his poem “Kubla Khan” was written in an opium reverie -- and never finished because he couldn’t write fast enough to recapture the entire dream. His addiction later caused many troubles in his life -- financial difficulties, alienation from Wordsworth, and deteriorating health. He put himself in a doctor’s care several times to combat the addiction, and took refuge in the home of Dr. James Gillman for the last 17 years of his life.