Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Introduction

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Introduction

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."blank" rel="nofollow">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.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Trivia

Samuel Taylor was the youngest of nine siblings and four half-siblings in the Coleridge family.

When it came to the details of daily living, Coleridge was, by all accounts, an absolute mess. At one point he owned six shirts. In short order, he lost three in the laundry, slept in one, accidentally used one as a floor mat, and had only one left for wearing.

Don't try this at home, kids! Among the many awful side effects of Coleridge's opium addiction was crippling constipation, which made him "weep & sweat & moan & scream."

Coleridge hated his first name, Samuel, and frequently used pseudonyms in his writing. His pen names included Gnome, Zagri, and Nehemiah Higginbottom.

When Coleridge was seven years old, his older brother Frank (in typical older brother fashion) ruined a cheese snack the younger boy was saving for himself. Samuel fought him, Frank punched him back, and an enraged Samuel grabbed a knife and was about to stab him when their mother walked in. Terrified of his punishment, Coleridge dropped the knife and fled to a cold and misty field where he hid overnight. A search party found him the next day. His plan worked – he was so weak and sick that everyone forgot that he tried to kill Frank the day before.

One night after drinking claret (a dry red wine) with friends, Coleridge hurled a glass through the window, and then threw a fork at a wine glass. No record of who picked up the mess.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Resources

Books

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1815)
Coleridge spent years working on a gargantuan book of philosophy that he believed would be his masterpiece. He died before it was finished, but his Biographia Literaria is a fine substitute for a magnum opus. The book is a series of first person essays on philosophy and literary criticism. Here Coleridge introduced the concept of a "willing suspension of disbelief," which is, essentially, the thing that makes imagination possible. Not an easy read, but an important one.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Poetry and Prose (Norton Critical Edition), 2003
Coleridge was almost too smart to function properly. Friends and fans who came to see him were often overwhelmed by the speaking style that his nephew described as an "exhaustive, cyclical mode of discoursing."_CITATION41_ So when it comes to reading Coleridge, one needs all the help one can get. This edition of his important poetry and prose has helpful notes and insights that might smooth the process along.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (1798)
Coleridge and Wordsworth spent a year in Nether Stowey working on the poems for this famous collection. In the end, Wordsworth demanded sole authorship credit (even though five poems, including the famed Rime of the Ancient Mariner, belonged to Coleridge) and booted Coleridge's beloved poem "Christabel" out of the book. We're not sure who died and crowned Wordsworth the poetry king, but this book remains one of the most important works in English literature and definitely the defining piece of English Romantic literature.

Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1999) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (2000)
Holmes won the Whitbread Award for Biography for his staggering achievement in this two-volume look at Coleridge's life. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in literature—a genius beset by numerous personal flaws. This painstakingly researched biography is a fascinating look at this complex character.

Adam Sisman, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge (2007)
Coleridge and his friend William Wordsworth were so closely intertwined in work and life that it makes sense to look at them together. This is a biography of one of the most productive friendships in literary history. Wordsworth was a controlled, disciplined poet; Coleridge was a genius with serious personal problems that hampered his achievements. Both believed fervently that Wordsworth was the more important of the two.

Robert Southey and Edward Dowden, Poems by Robert Southey (2004)
Along with Coleridge and Wordsworth, Robert Southey is known as one of the "Lake poets." Though his work is largely overshadowed by the reputations of his better known contemporaries, he was still an important figure in Romanticism and Coleridge's life. Southey and Coleridge first met as idealistic, poetically inclined students at Cambridge. Together they planned the Pantisocracy, a utopian community they hoped to run in Pennsylvania. They fell out over differences on how to run the project.

Music

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Blues
Bluesman Jim Provencher belts out this homage to Coleridge. Though we never thought about it before, "the Samuel Taylor Coleridge blues" really is an apt description of a certain type of malaise.

Citizen Kafka and the Wretched Refuse String Band
There must be something about Coleridge that really speaks to guitar-pickers. This is an awesome bluegrass version of "Kubla Khan," by the late great Richard Shulberg (aka Citizen Kafka) and his band.

Xanadu!
You weren't born when the original movie came out, but now you can experience the roller-disco glory of Xanadu on the stage. Feel free to sing along. We can't imagine what Coleridge would think about this.

Beethoven
Even though he once said that "most music is beneath me,"_CITATION42_ Coleridge was a fan of Ludwig van Beethoven (Mozart, too). The two men were also both major leaders in the Romantic arts. They also struggled with serious personal travails—Beethoven kept working even after he went completely deaf.

Lee Boo
This U.K. group has just released "Blake Songs," an album of music set to the poetry of Romantic poet and Coleridge contemporary William Blake. Check out songs like "The Echoing Green" and "The Tyger."

Samuel Coleridge Taylor
This English composer and conductor had nothing to do with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Romantic poets. But he's a great musician, and if you Google "Coleridge" you get his stuff too.

Images

Lyrical Ballads
A first edition of the 1798 collection that contained The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Dove Cottage
The Grasmere home where Coleridge frequently stayed with Wordsworth.

Kubla Khan
The original manuscript.

Coleridge's Grave
His final resting place

Coleridge Monument
Memorial stone.

Movies & TV

The Ancient Mariner (1925)
You'll have to look hard to find a copy of this black and white film adaptation of Coleridge's epic poem. The film stars the iconic Clara Bow as Doris (a character created for the film - there is nobody named "Doris" in the original poem).

Rime of The Ancient Mariner (1977)
Orson Welles narrates this version of Coleridge's poem, as animated versions of the original nineteenth century illustrations for "Mariner" fill the screen. Another hard-to-find gem for true cinema geeks.

Clouds of Glory: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978)
Apparently "Mariner" is a really popular title for Coleridge-themed movies. This movie by filmmaker Ken Russell focuses on the harrowing effects of Coleridge's opium addiction, which robbed him of his health and his career.

Pandaemonium (2000)
This film from director Julien Temple is about the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is set during the period when Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan" while battling his addiction to opium. The beautiful set helps you understand why the Romantics found nature so inspiring.

The Romantics (2006)
This BBC miniseries chronicles the drama-filled lives of the English Romantics. Martin Savage plays Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the brilliant but troubled boy genius of the Romantics.

Xanadu
In Xanadu did Olivia Newton-John a pleasure dome decree. The title of this campy classic comes from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree"), which is quoted in the movie. There is no way to describe this film. Ask your parents.

Websites

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge Archive
The definitive home of Coleridge information on the Web. Marjorie A. Tiefert at the University of Virginia did seriously good work here. Worth noting is the dictionary that translates words in Coleridge's vocabulary that are rarely used in ours.

Academy of American Poets
This website is a helpful introduction to the Romantics. Start with their overview to the Romantic era and then move on to the individual biographies of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other major players. Links to the poems and critical essays about Coleridge are also available on this site.

Friends of Coleridge
The only requirement for membership in the Friends of Coleridge, a U.K.-based non-profit, is interest in the life and works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. You can attend conferences, learn about Coleridge-themed events, and take a virtual tour of Coleridge's former home in Nether Stowey.

Literary History
Coleridge is a challenging read, and so it helps to hear what other scholars have to say about him. This site has an index of critical essays and reviews about Coleridge, all of which are available online. This is a helpful guide to secondary sources if you're doing an in-depth paper on Coleridge.

Bartleby
The e-text warehouse Bartleby offers the Coleridge entry in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It is helpful for choosing quotes or passages to study further, but don't use this page to bluff your way out of not having read "Christabel."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Facebook
Friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge! His Facebook page is a quasi-international meeting place for Coleridge fans scattered around the world. Join one of the ongoing discussions if you can't get enough of your favorite Romantic poet. (Just don't unfriend him—Coleridge took slights hard.)

Video & Audio

Kubla Khan
A reading of the poem, with eerie images.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Rap
The name says it all. Good work, crystalblade20.

Epitaph on an Infant
Coleridge's poem, as recited in the movie Finding Forrester.

Primary Sources

Biographia Literaria
A free e-book of this classic text.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
From the 1798 Lyrical Ballads.

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison
A poem to Charles Lamb.

Kubla Khan
Or, a vision of a dream. A fragment.

Christabel
The poem Wordsworth booted from Lyrical Ballads.

The Eolian Harp
The 1795 poem.

Letter to Joseph Cottle
1814 letter discussing his opium addiction.

Letter to William Southeby
1828 letter giving instructions for his autopsy.

Letter to Charles Tulk
1818 letter on William Blake's poetry.