Everything you need to know about Samuel Taylor Coleridge can be learned from the background story behind the poem "Kubla Khan."
In 1797, an over-medicated Coleridge dozed off in his desk chair. During a three-hour nap, the poet dreamed a complete epic poem about Mongol emperor Kubla Khan. He woke up, seized a pen and began to write, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door. Rather than ignoring the distraction and continuing to work, Coleridge spent an hour with his visitor. The man left and Coleridge returned to his work, only to check his brain and discover that the poem was—poof—gone.
"[W]ith the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"2 Coleridge lamented. The fifty-four lines that he managed to get down before the fateful knock on the door are brilliant, and the poem is one of the most famous examples of Romantic literature. But the specter of the lost lines, the greatness that could have been, hangs over the page.
This is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poet, literary critic, and lecturer was without question one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century—perhaps of the last few centuries. He wrote great poetry (such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his chilling classic). He also wrote about other poets such as Shakespeare and his friend William Wordsworth in a way that brought new meaning to their works. No one had ever really explained the transformation in the human mind that allows us to appreciate literature and poetry. With his concept of the "willing suspension of disbelief,"3 Coleridge put words to a universal experience that was previously taken for granted. For all of his ideas that never came to fruition, hundreds of them did - in articles, poems, plays, speeches, essays, and the like. He was, as scholar David Perkins has pointed out, "the Shakespeare of ideas."4 Therefore, Perkins says, "It seems strange indeed that he has so often been judged an example of great gifts come to little."5
For all of his accomplishments, Coleridge always seemed to fall just short of his full potential. He was a habitual oversleeper. He broke plans and missed deadlines. He often left his mail unopened in case it contained bad news.6 For half his life he battled a crippling opium addiction that made him feel worthless and ashamed. He never got some of his best ideas down on paper, leaving other, more diligent friends (like Wordsworth) to write the poems Coleridge only talked about. He spent years working on a massive book of philosophy; it was never finished. Coleridge seemed often to find something or someone else to blame for his lack of productivity. His poem was ruined because of an ill-timed knock on the door; his unhappy marriage was the cause of opium addiction, depression, and chronic procrastination. He was like that friend who can never seem to get his life together, but who is so fun and cool and charming that you can't help but give him a break.7
Coleridge spent his life trying to bridge the chasm between the inside world and the outside one, the mind and physical reality. He was tremendously passionate. When he fell in love with an idea or a woman, he fell hard. It may have all been too much for him. The literary critic Evelyn Toynton has argued that Coleridge's failures, particularly his drug use, may have been in response to the overwhelming challenges his mind demanded of him. Like everyone else who knew him, we want to give Coleridge a break.
"[I]t seems to me that his escapism was extraordinary in that it was fueled (at least sometimes) by such a tremendous sense of what he was fleeing toward—feelings of transcendence, a state of oneness with the deity, a non-material reality far finer than the gross corporeality of the body, etc. etc. That's why there is always something reductive about those studies of S.T.C. that present him as, in effect, a typical junkie. Maybe, like every junkie, he just wanted to get high, but what got him high was of a higher order than with any other junkie one can think of."8