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!"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21 October 1772 in Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire, England. He was the youngest of ten children of the Reverend John Coleridge, a clergyman, and Anne Bowden Coleridge. Eight of his nine older siblings were boys, and his brothers tormented him mercilessly. Samuel, who started school at the age of three, sought refuge in books. Two weeks before Coleridge's ninth birthday his father died, and he was sent to live at Christ's Hospital, a London boarding school that gives free education to orphans (the 450-year-old school still exists). There he met fellow student named Charles Lamb, who also grew up to be a poet. The two became lifelong friends.
Coleridge thrived in London, making friends easily, immersing himself in the libraries and engaging in philosophical debates whenever he could. From an early age, he demonstrated an active imagination and a talent for talking himself out of scrapes. One day while walking in London, Coleridge daydreamed that he was the Greek mythological character Leander, swimming across the Hellespont river to be with his lover Hero. While waving his arms to pantomime swimming (he was a committed daydreamer), he bumped into a man who thought Coleridge was trying to pick his pocket. He shouted at him, and Coleridge cried back that he was actually en route to Sestos, the riverside town where Hero lived. His accuser was so impressed that he bought the boy a subscription to a library. Eventually, his brothers paid money to bail him out of the army.
Coleridge returned to Cambridge. In what turned out to be his final year at the university, he read a book called Descriptive Sketches by a poet named William Wordsworth. It was a life-changing event. "Seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced,"blank">Lake District. For the duration of their marriage, Coleridge came up with every excuse he could to stay out of the house.
Coleridge first met William Wordsworth in 1795, when he traveled to the Dorset home where the poet lived with his sister Dorothy. He walked 50 miles to get there, and as he approached Wordsworth noticed that their over-excited visitor "did not keep to the high road, but leaped over a gate and bounded down a pathless field by which he cut off an angle."blank" rel="nofollow">Wordsworth was as well known for his arrogance as he was for his poetry.)
Their friendship survived. The day after Lyrical Ballads was published, the two set sail for Germany together. Coleridge planned to stay there for three months, but ended up staying ten months. Overextending his stay was a habit of Coleridge. He also had a habit of falling in love with the female relatives of his friends. When he returned to England, Coleridge fell deeply (and unrequitedly) in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth's future wife Mary. He wrote numerous poems to "Asra," the name he gave Sara Hutchinson so that he wouldn't confuse her with his wife, Sara Coleridge. The wife who bore him four children. And got no poetry.
In 1800, Coleridge visited a doctor to seek relief from chronic rheumatic pain. The doctor prescribed laudanum, the liquid form of opium. Laudanum was a common and effective painkiller that, unbeknownst to doctors, was extremely addictive. Coleridge developed a dependency on laudanum that would last for 16 years. In the 19th century, chemical addiction was not understood as a disease the way it is now. It was believed that people who couldn't break their habit out of sheer will were weak. Coleridge felt disgusted and ashamed by his disease. "I have prayed with drops of agony on my Brow, trembling not only before the Justice of my Maker, but even before the Mercy of my Redeemer. 'I gave thee so many Talents. What hast thou done with them'?" Coleridge wrote to a friend who admonished him for his drug use. "You bid me rouse myself—go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, & that will cure him. Alas! (he would reply) that I cannot move my arms is my Complaint & my misery."
In 1816, Coleridge's doctor sent a letter to a London physician named James Gillman, asking if Gillman would take in a patient desiring "to fix himself in the house of some medical gentleman, who will have courage to refuse him any laudanum."
Father John Coleridge (1719-1781)
Mother: Anne Bowden Coleridge (1726-1809)
Brother: John Coleridge (1754-1787)
Brother: William Coleridge (1755-1756)
Brother: William Coleridge (1758-1780)
Brother: James Coleridge (1759-1836)
Brother: Edward Coleridge (1760-1843)
Brother: George Coleridge (1764-1828)
Brother: Luke Coleridge (1765-1790)
Sister: Anne "Nancy" Coleridge (1767-1791)
Brother: Francis Coleridge (1770-1792)
Wife: Sara Fricker Coleridge (1770-1845)
Son: Hartley Coleridge (1796-1849)
Son: Berkeley Coleridge (1798-1799)
Son: Derwent Coleridge (1800-1883)
Daughter: Sara Coleridge (1803-1852)
Cambridge University (1791-1794), no degree
Soldier, 15th Light Dragoons (1793-1794)
A Moral and Political Lecture (1795)
Conciones ad Populum, or Addresses to the People (1795)
The Plot Discovered, or an Address to the People Against Ministerial Treason (1795)
Lyrical Ballads (1798) includes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Friend (1812)
The Statesman's Manual, or The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon (1816)
Christabel: Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep (1816)
Biographia Literaria (1817)
Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character (1825)
On the Constitution of Church and State (1830)
Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1841)
Hints towards the Formation of a more Comprehensive Theory of Life (1848)
Seven Lectures Upon Shakespeare and Milton (1856)