Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary, Devon, the youngest son of some thirteen children of John Coleridge, a minister.
He attended Dame Key’s Reading School from 1775 (3), and the Henry VIII Free Grammar School, Ottery from 1778 (6). His father, who was headmaster of the school, died in 1781 (9), and Coleridge was then enrolled at Christ’s Hospital, London, where he studied the classic authors and also Milton and Shakespeare under the able guidance of The Rev. James Bowyer. It was towards the end of his schooling here that he was first prescribed laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) for his fevers while in the school sanitorium.
Christ's Hospital (School), Newgate, London as it was in 1770
College and the army
In 1791 (19) he entered Jesus College, Cambridge on a scholarship, but nevertheless ran up large debts, and in 1793 (21), in financial difficulties, he enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons as Silus Tomkyn Comberbache, but he proved an incompetent soldier, and his brother quickly got him discharged by reason of insanity. He returned to Cambridge, only to leave again in 1794 (22) without a degree to tour Wales.
He had begun planning the establishment of a ‘pantisocracy’, a type of communist Utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennysylvania, with his friend Robert Southey and others, but the project came to nothing.
Through Southey, however, he had been introduced to the Fricker family, and he married Sarah Fricker in October 1795 (23). They moved to Cleveden near Bristol, where he produced The Watchman, a political periodical. It ran for ten numbers, appearing every eight days (to avoid tax) between March and May 1796.
The Watchman : Coleridge spent four weeks and travelled some four hundred miles, visiting Worcester, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester and Lichfield, in an attempt to promote the sale of this journal.
He then devoted himself to poetry and the study of ethics, becoming so impressed with Hartley’s Observations on Man that he named his first child after him. In 1796 (24) he published his first volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects.
Nether Stowey and William Wordsworth
In 1797 (25) he moved to Nether Stowey at the suggestion of Tom Poole, a successful businessman and literary enthusiast, and it was here that he was visited by the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, who shortly after both moved to Alfoxden House close by. In November of that year he was engaged by the Morning Post, but later regretted his involvement with journalism as being a waste of his ‘prime and manhood’.
Unitarian sermons and the Wedgewoods
In 1798 (26) he was busy giving Unitarian sermons in Shrewsbury, and the receipt of a life annuity of £150 from Tom and Josiah Wedgewood, who had met him whilst visiting Wordsworth at Alfoxden house, gave him a certain amount of financial security for the first time, and he began planning a visit to Germany.
It was during this period that he wrote some of what were to become his most popular works, including the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Frost at Midnight. In 1798 (26) he published Lyrical Ballads anonymously with William Wordsworth, which volume included his Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Tour of Germany and meeting with Sara Hutchinson
He toured Germany to study the language and philosophy, and, on his return to England in 1799 (27), made a visit to the Wordsworths, who were at the time staying at a farm in Sockburn, Yorkshire, with the Hutchinson family. Here he began a relationship with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife.
The Lake District
The Wordsworths moved to Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and were followed to the Lake District by Coleridge and his family in 1800 (28). In 1802 (30) he toured Wales with Tom and Sally Wedgewood, and in 1803 (31) Scotland with the Wordsworths.
Addiction, Malta and Italy
By this time he was ill, and addicted to laudanum, and, in an attempt to regain his health, he sailed for the Mediterranean, becoming undersecretary to the British High Commissioner in Malta. In 1807 (35) he left Malta to tour Italy.
He was back in Keswick in December 1807 (35), and shortly after arranged a separation from his wife, though he continued to maintain her.
The Friend and problems with Wordsworth
Between 1808 (36) and 1809 (37) he wrote and edited The Friend, a literary, moral and political weekly, with the help of his lover, Sara Hutchinson. But his addiction continued, and he was finally rejected by both Sara and the Wordsworths in 1810 (38).
The Montagu family helped him to move to London, and he accepted accommodation first with them, and then with the Morgans in Hammersmith. In 1812 (40) his Wedgewood annuity was reduced to £75. He worked as a journalist for The Courier, and gave a series of notable lectures on literary subjects, which were well received. In 1816 (44) he moved in for a month with Dr James Gillman, an apothecary, and stayed for the next eighteen years. He continued to write and lecture on a variety of literary and political subjects, and published the Sibylline Leaves in 1817 (45), which contained some new work. He also had a successful play, Remorse (formerly Osario), staged at Drury Lane, and his table talk was much in demand.
He died in Highgate, London on July 25, 1834 (62), providing his own epitaph:
Beneath this sod
A Poet lies; or that which once was he.
O lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.
That he, who many a year with toil of breath,
Found Death in Life, may here find Life in Death.
The Ancient Mariner is still providing theatrical inspiration.
For entertaining information about the sale of the Watchman:
go to index of poets