What do you think of when you hear the name Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Maybe you thought of Kubla Khan, the epic poem that Coleridge dreamed and then lost when a visitor rapped on his door. Or willing suspension of disbelief, his literary concept so essential to our appreciation of art and fiction that it's amazing no one bothered to explain it before. Or perhaps you blurted opium addiction, the demon that dominated half his life.
But just as likely, you might have said, Who?
You are not alone. Though his poetry and criticism gave us some of the most important ideas in literature, today we're more familiar with the writers who piggybacked on Coleridge's ideas than we are with Coleridge himself. (We're looking at you, William Wordsworth.) Born in 1772 in Ottery St. Mary, England, Coleridge was one of the leading figures of English Romantic literature. He wrote prodigiously, churning out so many poems, plays, articles, essays and speeches that Virginia Woolf once described him as "not a man, but a swarm."1Together with his close friend William Wordsworth, he wrote the poetry collection Lyrical Ballads, one of the defining works of Romanticism. He was, by all accounts, a genius.
Sadly, his tremendous talents were coupled with equally formidable personal problems. Coleridge suffered from depression and poor health. He also seemed chronically unable to make deadlines, get up on time or meet the myriad responsibilities of adult life. His greatest challenge was an opium addiction that began with a legal prescription in 1800 and lasted in some form until his death in 1834. An inkling of how smart Coleridge was: even though he left behind a number of incredible works, history still mourns all that he might have done.