Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the premier poet-critic of modern English tradition, distinguished for the scope and influence of his thinking about literature as much as for his innovative verse. Active in the wake of the French Revolution as a dissenting pamphleteer and lay preacher, he inspired a brilliant generation of writers and attracted the patronage of progressive men of the rising middle class. As William Wordsworth’s collaborator and constant companion in the formative period of their careers as poets, Coleridge participated in the sea change in English verse associated with Lyrical Ballads (1798). His poems of this period, speculative, meditative, and strangely oracular, put off early readers but survived the doubts of Wordsworth and Robert Southey to become recognized classics of the romantic idiom.
Coleridge renounced poetic vocation in his thirtieth year and set out to define and defend the art as a practicing critic. His promotion of Wordsworth’s verse, a landmark of English literary response, proceeded in tandem with a general investigation of epistemology and metaphysics. Coleridge was preeminently responsible for importing the new German critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich von Schelling; his associated discussion of imagination remains a fixture of institutional criticism while his occasional notations on language proved seminal for the foundation and development of Cambridge English in the 1920s. In his distinction between culture and civilization Coleridge supplied means for a critique of the utilitarian state, which has been continued in our own time. And in his late theological writing he provided principles for reform in the Church of England. Coleridge’s various and imposing achievement, a cornerstone of modern English culture, remains an incomparable source of informed reflection on the brave new world whose birth pangs he attended.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772 in the remote Devon village of Ottery St. Mary, the tenth and youngest child of Ann Bowdon Coleridge and John Coleridge, a school-master and vicar whom he was said to resemble physically as well as mentally. In vivid letters recounting his early years he describes himself as “a genuine Sans culotte, my veins uncontaminated with one drop of Gentility.” The childhood of isolation and self-absorption which Coleridge describes in these letters has more to do, on his own telling, with his position in the family. Feelings of anomie, unworthiness, and incapacity persisted throughout a life of often compulsive dependency on others.
A reader seemingly by instinct, Coleridge grew up surrounded by books at school, at home, and in his aunt’s shop. The dreamy child’s imagination was nourished by his father’s tales of the planets and stars and enlarged by constant reading. Through this, “my mind had been habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions not by mysight—even at that age.” Romances and fairy tales instilled in him a feeling of “the Great” and “the Whole.” It was a lesson he never forgot. Experience he always regarded as a matter of whole and integrated response, not of particular sensations. Resolving conflicted feelings into whole response occupies much of his best verse, and his developed philosophical synthesis represents a comparable effort of resolution.
A year after the death of his father in 1781 Coleridge was sent to Christ’s Hospital, the London grammar school where he would pass his adolescence training in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, at which he excelled, and in English composition. His basic literary values were formed here under the tutelage of the Reverend James Bowyer, a larger-than-life figure who balanced classical models with native English examples drawn from Shakespeare and Milton. While Wordsworth was imitating Thomas Gray at Hawkshead Grammar School, Coleridge was steeping in this long tradition of distinguished writing, learning to compose on Bowyer’s principles. These included an insistence on sound sense and clear reference in phrase, metaphor, and image: literary embroidery was discouraged. So were conventional similes and stale poetic diction. Coleridge’s later development as a poet may be characterized as an effort to arrive at a natural voice which eschewed such devices. Critical of the rhetorical excesses of the poetry of sensibility which prevailed at the time, he would join forces with Wordsworth in promoting “natural thoughts with natural diction” (Biographia Literaria, chapter 1).
Charles Lamb’s evocative portrait of “Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago” (1820) suggests what a hothouse environment the school was at the time. The student population included boys who went on to important careers in letters, church, and state. Even in such company Coleridge stood out unmistakably: “Come back into memory, like as thou wert in the day-spring of thy fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee—the dark pillar not yet turned—Samuel Taylor Coleridge—Logician, Metaphysician, Bard!—How have I seen the casual passer through the Cloisters stand still, intranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula), to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and sweet intonations, the mysteries of Jamblichus, or Plotinus (for even in those years thou waxedst not pale at such philosophic draughts), or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar—while the walls of the old Grey Friars re-echoed to the accents of the inspired charity-boy!” The opening notes of awe and eventual disappointment are characteristic, but the portrait of the artist as a young prodigy is more disturbing than Lamb admits. The vatic voice was already alive to its social possibilities, the sole resource of an isolated personality.
At Christ’s Hospital, Coleridge acquired an exalted idea of poetry to match this waxing voice. From Bowyer he would learn that “Poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science.” The comparison of poetry and science was an important one, leading to his mature definition of the art as a form of composition whose immediate aim was pleasure while science was concerned first of all with truth. Yet poetry arrived at truth in its own way, and that way was “more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.” The logic of science was derived from pure reason; the logic of poetry depended on human understanding, which was anything but pure. Understanding belonged to the world of sensation, generalization, and language, and through it poetry was committed to ordinary human experience. Hence its tangled condition. The words of the common tongue kept the poet in touch with this common world.
Poetry as living speech, poetry as act of attention: the commitments of Christ’s Hospital encouraged fresh judgment on the state of the art, and on what rang true now. Pope’s couplets had begun to sound contrived while the more masculine energies of Shakespeare and Milton were welling up in the imagination of a generation of young writers. In the sonnets of the Reverend William Lisle Bowles, the schoolboy Coleridge found a contemporary model whose voice struck him as “tender” yet “manly,” at once “natural and real.” These words are Coleridge’s own, and they describe his aspirations at least as much as they do Bowles’s fulsome versifications. Long after the model had lost its grip on him, he would credit Bowles with drawing him out of a metaphysical daze, restoring him to “the love of nature, and the sense of beauty in forms and sounds.” To the poet in his first flush, Bowles represented the modern possibilities of “the more sustained and elevated style” in English verse.
At Jesus College, Cambridge, where Coleridge matriculated in October 1791, he composed a mass of occasional poetry. Full of the rhetorical machinery of the middling verse of the period, and often cloying in sentiment, these early poems have little in common with the work of 1795 and after, on which his reputation would be founded. They do not even show him developing in the direction of his mature voice. Some of the phrasing of this college phase bears witness to the force of Milton’s example on the student’s impressionable ear. The backward ambience of Cambridge in the 1790s seems to have retarded Coleridge’s muse, setting him to composing an arid (and ungrammatical) prize poem in Greek (in summer 1792), while driving him to escape from “bog and desolation.” Reports of his college life suggest that he was absorbing not only Greek texts but English political pamphlets at this interesting moment. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) had met the rising sympathy for events in France with questions about the legitimacy and future of the state. Coleridge is said by a Cambridge contemporary to have consumed Burke’s various productions on first publication, reciting them from memory to company at supper. His sympathies were broadly liberal—critical of William Pitt’s government and the slave trade, yet wary of the situation in France. He was active in defense of William Frend, a Unitarian and Fellow of Jesus College who was expelled for publishing a pamphlet advocating Peace and Union (1793). This episode marks the beginning of a convergence between politics and poetry in Coleridge’s career which is characteristic and important. For he was never a disinterested observer. His poetry participated in ongoing reactions to events at home and abroad, and he recognized its vocation in this public setting.
On the basis of seemingly contradictory responses, Coleridge has sometimes been depicted as a turncoat who betrayed his original revolutionary sympathies. His poems suggest, and his lay sermons of the period confirm, that his allegiance was always to an ideal of freedom, not to democratic insurgency. The quality of his ambivalence did not prevent his speaking out in situations which damaged his reputation among Burke’s party, his natural constituency. What sort of revolutionary would enlist in the king’s army in this perilous moment? Coleridge did so on 2 December 1793 under an assumed name, fleeing debts and discouragement at college. He was rescued by family and friends after serving locally for some five months. Escape, servitude, and retreat would become a familiar pattern in Coleridge’s life.