About Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772, the tenth and youngest child of the schoolmaster of the country town of Ottery St Mary. After the death of his father he attended Christ’s Hospital School:
‘I was reared / In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.’ (‘Frost at Midnight’)
In 1794, during a walking tour from Cambridge where he was an undergraduate, he met Robert Southey and together they devised a plan to set up a commune of six families in the valley of the Susquehanna, New England, a scheme which eventually collapsed in argument and conflict. Coleridge and Southey married two of three sisters who had been involved in the abortive plans. Coleridge and his wife, Sara, then moved to Nether Stowey, with their now young family and it was near here that Coleridge met William Wordsworth and began a friendship which, despite difficulties, had a profound influence on the work of both poets, and on the development of English poetry itself. Most of Coleridge’s best work, and all the poems recorded here, were written during the years 1797–8 between walking and talking with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
Together Wordsworth and Coleridge planned Lyrical Ballads, a collection which included The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ‘The Nightingale’. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ tells the story of a nightmarish sea journey, in the style of a traditional ballad. The mariner shoots an albatross flying alongside and a curse is placed on the ship. The dead bird is hung around the neck of the mariner and the ship is becalmed under burning sun in a rotting sea; all the crew except the mariner die. Then, watching the water snakes in the moonlight, he redeems himself by blessing them; the albatross falls from his neck. Part V, recorded here, takes the story on as the ship sails home and the mariner is condemned to travel the world and to teach reverence for all God’s creatures.
By contrast, Coleridge describes ‘The Nightingale’ as a ‘conversation poem’, fulfilling the aim of ‘giving the charm of novelty to the things of everyday’. He conveys the immediacy of his experience of the bird’s song, and his touching belief in the kindly influence of nature on his baby son, Hartley. In ‘Frost at Midnight’, the poet and his baby are warm and cosily isolated from the cares of the world. Coleridge’s philosophy is conveyed as fireside musing, anchored to this delightful picture of a tender moment in his life. ‘Fears in Solitude’ is a reminder of the state of the world in 1798; it was written in response to the possibility of invasion from France.
Written at about the same time but published much later, ‘Kubla Khan’, is subtitled ‘a vision in a dream’. Its incantatory magic defies paraphrase: it is a fragment, famously unfinished because a ‘Person from Porlock’ interrupted him in mid-flow.
Coleridge underestimated his own powers as a poet, wrongly believing himself unable to embody his thinking in true poetry. After his intensely creative time under the inspiration of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, he turned to writing prose, especially literary criticism. His marriage to Sara became increasingly unhappy; he struggled for many years with his addiction to opium and died in 1834.
Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Poetry Store
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