Childhood & Early Years
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772, in Ottery St Mary, a rural town in East Devon, England. At the time of his birth, his father, John Coleridge, was the head master of Henry VIII's Free Grammar School at Ottery and a respected vicar of the parish. His mother, Ann (nee Bowden), was his father’s second wife.
Samuel was born the youngest of their ten children, having seven surviving brothers named John, William, James, Edward, George, Luke, Francis, and a sister named Ann. From his father’s first marriage, he had four half-sisters; Elizabeth, Florella, Mary and Sarah.
Young Samuel was very close to his father, but his relationship with his mother was distant; he often had to provoke her to gain some attention. He did not like boyish sports but loved to read; he had read books like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘The Arabian Nights’ by the age of six.
In 1781, when Samuel was eight years old, his father, with whom he shared a close relationship, passed away, leaving him distraught. However, his brothers had started earning by then and George now took up his charge, becoming his “father, brother and everything”.
In 1782, Samuel entered Christ’s Hospital, an independent day and boarding school in Horsham, meant for the children of poor gentry. Here he became friends with future essayist Charles Lamb and squib writer Charles Valentine Le Grice. Another of his close friends during this period was Tom Evans.
During his school years, he hardly ever went home, experiencing acute loneliness, especially during holidays when most of his friends were away. The situation became better when George and Luke moved to London. Slowly, he became close to Luke, but once again felt lonely when the latter returned to Devon.
While in school, he often suffered from a mild feverish condition, forcing him to spend his time at the sanatorium where he occupied himself with reading classics. Soon, he started writing poetry, with ‘Easter Holidays’ and ‘Dura Navis’, both of which was written in 1787, being his earliest known poems.
In 1788, he visited Tom Evans’ home in London, experiencing motherly love from Mrs. Evans, writing ‘To Disappointment’ in 1792, where he put her in his mother’s place. He also became infatuated with Tom’s elder sister, Mary, for five years. He loved her “almost to madness,” but never proposed to her.
In September 1791, Coleridge entered Jesus College, Cambridge, on a yearly scholarship of seventy pounds. In addition, as the son of a deceased clergyman, he also received the Rustat Scholarship of thirty pounds. But he spent a large part of it on drugs and prostitutes, incurring large amounts of debt.
Initially, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps, he aimed for a career at the Church of England. But very soon, he was introduced to radical ideas in theology and politics, becoming a supporter of William Frend, a fellow at the college.
In 1792, while continuing to write poems while attending classes in mathematics and classics, he received the Browne Gold Medal for a poem he wrote on the slave trade. But in December 1793, oppressed by a large debt, he joined the 15th (The King’s) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons, a mounted infantry.
Although he called himself “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache” to hide his true identity, his brothers soon came to know of it and arranged to have him discharged and readmitted to Jesus College. Soon after that, in June 1794, while traveling to Wales, he met a student named Robert Southey, striking an instant friendship with him.
In December 1794, he left Jesus College without a degree. The year 1795 was spent in planning to create ‘pantisocracy’ in the New World with Southey, a project that never saw the light of the day. Also in September 1795, he befriended William Wordsworth.
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Career As Poet
In 1796, Coleridge launched ‘The Watchman’, a liberal political journal he planned to print every eight days. The first issue was published in March 1796 and the last one in May. Also in 1796, he published his first collection of poems, ‘Poems on Various Subjects’.
In 1797, Coleridge moved to Somerset, hiring a cottage in Nether Stowey. Here he had a happy time, being surrounded by many friends, including Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, writing many of his famous poems. This period was highly productive for him.
In 1797, on being left alone after an accident and sitting under a lime tree, he wrote ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’. Also in the same year, he started writing his longest poem, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and ‘Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment’.
Sometime now, he set out on a new venture with Wordsworth, trying to do away with the old style of composing poetry, which they considered to be prudish. Writing verses in everyday language, they jointly published 'Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems' in 1798, marking the beginning of the Romantic Movement.
In 1798, he was offered a life annuity of £150 by his friend Josiah Wedgwood II on the condition that he give up the ministerial career that he was trying to establish and instead concentrate on writing. Coleridge happily accepted it, leaving for Germany with Wordsworth in autumn.
Remaining in Germany until 1799, Coleridge studied philosophy at Göttingen University and mastered the German language. On their return to England, they spent some time in Thomas Hutchinson's farm near Darlington, writing his ballad-poem ‘Love’.
In 1800, Coleridge settled down at Keswick while Wordsworth moved to Grasmere, both in Lake District. Sometime now, he lived as Wordsworth’s houseguest for eighteen months, creating tension in the household with his nightmares and increasing opium addiction.
In early 1800, Coleridge began to suffer from ill health. In addition, he also went through a period of marital problems, increased opium dependency, regular nightmares and tension. As a result, he could not write much though he produced ‘Dejection: An Ode’ in 1802.
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In 1804, Coleridge was appointed as the acting public secretary to the Civil Commissioner, Alexander Ball, in Malta, a position he held successfully for two years, returning to England in 1806. In January 1807, living with Wordsworth, he wrote ‘To William Wordsworth’ in response to the latter’s poem, ‘The Prelude’.
Later in 1807, he traveled to Malta and from there to Sicily and then to Italy. Although he had hoped that the warmer Italian climate would improve his health, that did not happen. Therefore, he returned to England in 1808.
During his sojourn across Italy, he came across many statesmen, forceful in their behavior. Realizing his own shortcomings in this field, he decided to become more manly and decisive.
In June 1809, he launched a weekly periodical, ‘The Friend’. Although Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, worked as his amanuensis, Coleridge wrote, edited and published the journal almost singlehandedly, showcasing his diverse knowledge of law, philosophy, ethics, politics and history.
In March 1810, after running ‘The Friend’ for twenty-five issues, he had to close it down because of financial problems. Sara Hutchinson, with whom he had a romantic involvement, also left. Later, the articles were published in book form, influencing many renowned philosophers.
Holding Wordsworth responsible for the departure of Sara, Coleridge cut off his relation with his friend and settled down in London. In the winter of 1810-1811, he was sponsored by the Philosophical Institution to give a series of lectures, which established his reputation as a critic.
Coleridge continued giving lectures until 1820. Among them, the one he gave on ‘Hamlet’ on 2 January 1812 was possibly his best. Coleridge was the first to establish the reputation of the play that had till then been belittled by critics.
In 1814, Coleridge moved to Calne in Wiltshire, remaining there until 1816. During this period, he started his work on ‘Biographia Literaria’ and also accepted a commission to translate ‘Faust,’ a tragic play by Goethe. However, he is believed to have abandoned the later work after six weeks.
By April 1816, his drug addiction became worse and he started feeling depressed. He now shifted to Highgate, at that time a suburb north of London and moved in with his physician, Dr. James Gillman, remaining there until his death in 1834.
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Under Gillman’s treatment, Coleridge was able to control his drug addiction, finishing ‘Biographia Literaria’ in 1817. ‘Lay Sermons’ (1816), ‘Sibylline Leaves’ (1817), ‘Hush’ (1820), ‘Aids to Reflection’ (1825) and ‘On the Constitution of the Church and State’ (1830) are some other notable works of this period.
Family & Personal Life
In 1795, possibly persuaded by Southey, who had by then become engaged to Edith Fricker, Coleridge married her sister Sara Fricker. Never loving her, he married her simply because marriage was an integral part of the commune they planned to set up in America. The couple separated in 1808.
The couple had four children: three sons named Hartley, Derwent, Berkeley, and a daughter named Sara. Among them, Hartley grew up to be a distinguished poet, biographer, essayist, and a teacher, while Derwent made his name as a scholar and author. Sara became an author and translator.
As Coleridge was away most of the time, having little communication with his wife, Southey took charge of the family, acting as the head of the family. The children also had close relationships with Wordsworth, and Greta Hall, where Wordsworth lived, was Sara’s home until her marriage.
Coleridge first became used to laudanum, a tincture form of opium, when he was a student at Jesus College, an addiction that remained with him throughout his life, making him entirely dependent on it. Later in life, as his dependence on the drug increased, his creativity began to decrease.
Coleridge spent the last eighteen years of his life in the Highgate home of Dr. James Gillman, living with them as a family member. Cared for by the Gillman family, he was able to control his drug addiction to a large extent, regaining his reputation as a great poet and critic.
On 25 July 1834, Coleridge died of heart failure, which was compounded by an unidentified lung disorder, possibly arising out of his long intake of opium. Originally buried at Old Highgate Chapel, he was re-interred in St. Michael's Parish Church, Highgate, in 1961.
The cottage he hired in Nether Stowey is now known as ‘Coleridge’s Cottage’. Since 1909, it is being run as a writer’s home museum.