Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Major Works: Poetry: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (From Lyrical Ballads, 1798); "Frost at Midnight" (1798); "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" (1800); "Dejection: An Ode" (1802); "Christabel" (1816); "Kubla Khan" (1816); Criticism: Biographia Literaria (1815); "On Poesy or Art" (1818)," Shakespearean Criticism (1808-19)

Biographical Notes: Born the fourteenth child to a vicar and orphaned at eight, a gifted and precocious child comfortable in conversation with adults, Coleridge attended Cambridge but never received a degree. He was friends with a number of important Romantics, Wordsworth most notably. Like Wordsworth, he was inspired by the early French Revolution, and along with poet Robert Southey, Coleridge tried unsuccessfully to found a utopian commune in Pennsylvania (Pantisocracy).  Like Wordsworth, too, he grew increasingly conservative as he aged.  Coleridge lived on an annuity granted him so that he could pursue his genius however he  wished, and he published poetry, gave lectures, and wrote essays influential well into the 20th century on various subjects in literary criticism, philosophy, psychology, religion, and art.  His contemporaries described Coleridge as having an intense, inspiring presence and an immense personal charm.  He was considered a genius and an even more powerful and gifted talker than he was a writer: the experience of hearing his brilliant thought and expression in casual conversation has been described as "hearing a  great book talked."  Coleridge took laudanum for chronic pain in the joints and nerves and struggled with opium addiction and its attendant guilt all his adult life.  If Wordsworth is the poetic giant of the era, Coleridge was the intellectual giant of the Romantic period, the "great high Priest of the Imagination": Wordsworth and Coleridge are considered together the two "fathers" of English Romanticism.

His Poetry
Coleridge's poetry is notable for its colloquial language, its specific imagery, which often translates into symbolic suggestiveness, its technical experimentation, and its philosophical and psychological depth.  Most of his major poems fall into two categories:


"Conversation poems": spontaneous, descriptive, meditative poems addressed to specific friends or relatives in a personal, "conversational" tone.  From vivid description of instances of domestic life these poems move through a series of naturally associated images—exact but increasingly symbolic or suggestive images—which  lead to some significant insight or "message."  Examples: "The Eolian Harp," "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "The Nightingale," "Frost at Midnight."


Tales of the imagination: longer narrative or visionary poems romantic or exotic in setting and involving the "magic" of the supernatural: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Christabel," and "Kubla Khan," for instance.


A few random notes
An important principle for Coleridge in poetry and art is "multëity in unity," or the "unity of the manifold."  He defined the beautiful in nature and in art as "that in which the many, still seen as many, become one" ("Principles of Genial Criticism").  Coleridge thought the greatest works in poetry, painting, and music combined in perfect harmony all the separate parts of the work into a wonderfully, surprisingly coherent whole, such as we see in the human body itself—all the different parts and organs with their specific individual functions combine in the magical whole of the human body.  Constituent parts support and explain one another: the images, actions, and characters in Shakespeare's plays, for instance, or the lines, shapes, and colors in a painting.  (In this vein consider the symbolic suggestiveness of concrete imagery and the organic flow of thought and association in the "Conversation poems.")


The mind and the imagination: Coleridge differed from many of his contemporaries who believed the "mind" consists of distinct, separate "faculties."  He saw the human mind as an organic unity of different functions such as intellect, emotion, and physical sensation, all united under the "completing power" of the creative imagination—another sort of "multëity in unity."


In addition, Coleridge explained that the "creative imagination" is the "shaping spirit of Imagination" (like Blake's "Poetic Genius"), which does not passively receive sense impressions from a "dead" external world but 1) actively creates experience in subjective interaction with an external world in which all objects have a living spirit (primary imagination), and 2) re-creates the world of the senses purely within the mind (secondary imagination, as opposed to "fancy," or recollection).

Coleridge thought great poets combined beauty and deep thought in their work; he saw the greatest poets as philosophers and writers of verse.  He thought poetry a conscious blend of passion or spontaneous impulse and voluntary, willed purpose.

Among other things, Coleridge's criticism is important for its development of objective critical judgment based not on external standards (as in neoclassicism), but instead on the merits within the work according to its own "comparative dignity and importance" and its own united, organic total effect.  He believed that works of genius create laws adhering to their own purposes: outside forms and rules (dramatic unities, etc.) should not be imposed upon them (Shakespearean Criticism).  This new way of evaluating poetry allowed for new types of poems which departed from traditions of the past to receive serious critical attention and acceptance.


Coleridge believed the aim of literary criticism should be to establish important principles of new writing, not to provide rules for judging existing writings.


Biographia Literaria is probably the single most significant work of criticism by the most important critic in the first half of the 19th century.  Its comments on poetry in general and on Wordsworth in particular are still meaningful and relevant today.