Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in the small, rural Devonshire town of Ottery St. Mary in southwest England on October 21, 1772. The son of a Church of England parish vicar, John Coleridge, and Ann Bowdon Coleridge, the boy entered Dame Key’s Reading School in 1775. In 1778 he began studies at the Henry VIII Free Grammar School, which was headed by his father. When John Coleridge died in 1782, Samuel was sent to the Christ’s Hospital School in London. The youngster was considered dreamy and eccentric by fellow schoolboys, in part because of his enthusiastic interest in metaphysics. He was considered extremely precocious.
In 1791 Coleridge entered Jesus College, Cambridge, but in spite of his scholastic abilities and outstanding intellect, he did not find the experience stimulating and left the university in 1794 without graduating.
On a visit to Oxford in June of that same year, he met Robert Southey, a student there. The two young men had several things in common, including poetic aspirations, radical political and religious views, and sympathy for the principles of the ongoing French Revolution. Coleridge and Southey determined to emigrate to Pennsylvania to establish a “Pantisocracy,” a term devised by Coleridge to describe an ideal democratic community in which there would be equal rule by all. Because the scheme required the would-be immigrants to marry, Coleridge became engaged to Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancee. Although the Pantisocracy plan was never realized, in 1795 Coleridge went through with the marriage.
In 1796 Coleridge published his first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects. In addition, he served as the editor of The Watchman for a couple of weeks, championing the ideals of the French Revolution and of the English political thinker William Godwin.
Coleridge moved to Nether Stowey in Somersetshire in 1797. This was a fortunate event because William Wordsworth, the “best poet of the age,” and his sister Dorothy, settled at nearby Alfoxden House the same year. Coleridge and Wordsworth, who had met casually two years earlier, now developed an intimate friendship. They collaborated on a collection of their poetry and jointly published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. This collection included Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” A second edition, published in 1802, featured Wordsworth’s preface, which described the writers’ poetic theory. Scholars consider the publication of Lyrical Ballads to mark the beginning of the English Romantic Period and, indeed, it is one of the most significant volumes in English literary history.
Over the next couple of years, Coleridge’s health deteriorated. To dull the pain, doctors provided him with heavy dosages of laudanum, a narcotic. It is suggested that he may have become addicted to this drug; in any case he fell into a deep depression. In 1802 Coleridge published “Dejection: An Ode,” a poem of despair in which he laments the loss of his health, happiness, and poetic powers. In spite of its bleak outlook, many scholars consider this ode to be Coleridge’s most magnificent lyrical work.
In 1803 the poet traveled in Scotland with the Wordsworths. In 1804 he visited Malta in hopes of improving his health. While there, Coleridge served as secretary to Governor Sir Alexander Ball. But after two years, he felt that his health was completely broken, and he returned to England. That same year he separated from Sara and their children. One of the lowest points in the poet’s life came in 1810, when he quarreled with Wordsworth and the two men became estranged for two years. Eventually these men reconciled their differences.
In 1816 Coleridge took up residence with a physician, James Gilman, at Highgate, a northern suburb of London. Coleridge apparently prospered under Gilman’s care, and he entered his most sustained period of literary activity, which lasted until 1819. While continuing to lecture and write for newspapers, Coleridge published Biographia Literaria (1817), a brilliant volume of philosophical and literary observations. This volume included his account of the conception of Lyrical Ballads, his insightful examination of Wordsworth’s poetry, and his statement of the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief.”
The final years of Coleridge’s life were relatively tranquil. In 1825 he was named an associate of the Royal Society of Literature, and he and Wordsworth toured the Rhineland in 1828. His most pleasurable pursuit during this time may have been entertaining guests in his home. William Hazlitt, in My First Acquaintance with Poets, reported on Coleridge’s habit of dazzling visitors with his observations on literature and philosophy. He became known as the “Sage of Highgate,” and his home was the meeting place for the London literati. Coleridge died in Highgate on July 25, 1834.