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Poor Sam. Reading about his life and times, you can't help but feel sorry for the guy. Sure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a poetic genius and a giant in the Romantic literary movement, but life was not exactly a bed of roses for our man.
For starters, he was overshadowed in his day (and in his own mind) by his pal William Wordsworth. He was also plagued by financial troubles, opium addiction (which was medically prescribed as "laudanum" during Coleridge's time), and a rocky marriage. Combine all that with a low self-opinion and a tendency to wax idealistic while leaving his work unfinished, and you get a poet who always seems to fall short of the promise of his tremendous writing gifts.
That doesn't mean he's not worth reading, though. In fact, Coleridge is behind some of the most influential poetry of the British Romantic period, including "Kubla Khan", "Frost at Midnight," and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The fact that he did churn out such influential works speaks to what a talented guy he was, since he had to overcome some crazy drama in his life just to get the words on the page.
Some of that drama started even while he was in college. Born in 1772, Coleridge entered Cambridge University in 1791. His plan was to study religion and go into the clergy, but his progressive politics made him ill-suited for that kind of life. Instead, he racked up debt, briefly ran away and joined the army, then returned to school where, in 1794, he met Robert Southey.
Coleridge and Southey became fast pals, brought together by a shared interest in philosophy. In fact, the two hatched a scheme together to establish a communal society in rural Pennsylvania. It was to be a "pantisocracy"—equal government by all. The plan was to get ten families to settle together in a tiny, completely equal mini-society.
That explains why, when Southey married one Edith Fricker, Coleridge married her sister Sarah, in 1795. Sure, Coleridge was in love with someone else, but by marrying Southey's sister-in-law, he was taking another step toward living that commune dream. Before they had even set sail for America, though, Southey switched gears on him, choosing to go into law instead.
This left Coleridge with no clear future plans, a wife he didn't really love, and an education he wasn't that interested in pursuing—good times. He dropped out of school and turned instead to writing, making a new friend in William Wordsworth. The two compared poems and ideas about literature, publishing the famous Lyrical Ballads together. And then Coleridge fell in love with Sara Hutchinson: Wordsworth's future sister-in-law.
As you might imagine, this made things a bit… awkward, both at home and in Coleridge's friendships. Depressed about his marriage, struggling with his opium addiction, and pining for a forbidden Sara, Coleridge did what he did best: he wrote.
"Dejection: an Ode" was the result.
This poem was originally meant as a letter to Sara Hutchinson, but instead it went through several drafts and revisions before finally seeing the light of day in 1802 in the London newspaper The Morning Post. It's a meditation on just how draining depression can be, but it's also a celebration of the transformational power of true joy and happiness.
Don't take our word for it, though. Turn those frowns upside-down and check out poor Sam's laments for yourself.
Did you ever have one of those mornings where your bed covers felt like they were made of concrete? The thought of getting up and tackling the day just sounds… totally impossible. All you want to do is lay there, being bummed out. Even brushing your teeth feels out of the question.
If you have, then a) we're sorry, and b) welcome to the club. Nearly everyone has gone through a spell of dejection like this, the kind of bone-deep sadness that seems to rob you of all your energy and drain the color from the world. When that happens, you have a choice. You can either eat ice cream in bed all day, or you can bust out an amazing poem that reflects on the experience.
Lucky for us, our man Samuel Taylor Coleridge went with Option B. He dives deep into the physical and spiritual sensations of what it feels like to be beyond simply sad, but vacant of all happiness. When the bottom drops out like that, it can feel like there's no getting over things.
Don't forget, though, that this poem is "Dejection: an Ode," with the emphasis on that last word. You can really talk serious bummer-tude, it turns out, without also reflecting on what it is that truly makes us happy. As much as this poem is a wallow in the muddy miasma of misery, it's also a meditation on how important joy is in our lives.
That kind of recognition, both of sadness and of joy, is a rare thing in life. Usually we just, you know, feel our feelings. We don't really spend that much time trying to puzzle through how or why we have them in the first place. For that kind of thinking, Shmoopers, you can thank Mr. Coleridge. And then, you can read his poem.
Easing Into Coleridge
This biography and links to his work is a good place to get started.
A Deeper Dive
This site presents a decidedly literary biography of Coleridge, as well as other links to his work and to criticism.
This is a BBC documentary on the literary group that Coleridge helped to found.
What does dejection look like to you? Is it a plastic animated flower on a windowsill, with a few dead bugs thrown in for good measure? Well, it is to whoever shot this video.
A Serious Read
Here's a YouTube reader offering up his best take.
What Does the Librivox Say?
Here's a second reading of the poem, recorded for the audio service Librivox.
Samuel the Younger
Here he is, rocking an unbeatable scarf-ascot-necktie thingy.
Samuel the Elder
Here he is with the same wild kind of necktie, but with added sideburns.
Instead of just writing "why not?", critic Kenneth Burke gives us a far more detailed explanation of Coleridge's contributions to literature.
The Complete Poems
Here's every poem, collected in convenient book form.