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Course 5

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE


1772-1834

In The Prelude, William Wordsworth, while recording his gratitude to the


mountains, lakes and winds “that dwell among the hills where I was born, he
“commiserates”1 with Coleridge (Cambridge History of British Literature: 416)
because “thou, my friend! Wert2 reared3/ in the great city, ‘mid far other
scenes.” In fact, Coleridge had been born in the small town of Ottery St. Mary,
in rural Devonshire, but sent to school at Christ’s Hospital, in London, when his
father died. As a schoolboy, he was dreamy, enthusiastic and precocious.
Charles Lamb, his schoolmate and lifelong friend, in an essay to Christ’s
Hospital has given the reader a sketch of Coleridge’s loneliness, his learning and
eloquence. When in 1791, Coleridge entered Jesus College, Cambridge, he was
an accomplished scholar, but finding little intellectual stimulation at the
university he fell into idleness4, dissoluteness5 and debt, then in despair fled to
London where he enlisted under the alias of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, one of
the most inept cavalry in the history of British army. He was rescued by his
brothers and sent back to Cambridge, which he left in 1794 without a degree.
In June 1794, Coleridge met Robert Southey6, then a student at Oxford,
who, like him had poetic aspirations, radical in religion and politics and
sympathized with the republican experiment in France. Together they planned to
establish an ideal democratic community, for which Coleridge coined the name
“Pantisocracy”, signifying an equal rule by all.
In 1795, Coleridge met Wordsworth and at once qualified him “the best
poet of his age”. In 1797, Wordsworth settled his sister at Alfoxden, three miles
from the Coleridges at Nether Stowey and a fruitful collaboration began. In
1798, Lyrical Ballads were published and Coleridge and Wordsworth spent a
winter in Germany, where Coleridge attended Gottingen University and began
his lifelong study of Kant and post-Kantian German philosophers and critics that
helped alter his thinking about philosophy, religion and aesthetics.
When they came back to England in 1800, Coleridge followed
Wordsworth in the Lake District and settled at Greta Hall. He estranged from his
wife and fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, whose sister Mary, Wordsworth
married in 1802. At that time, Coleridge had been taking laudanum (opium
1
Express sympathy to someone unhappy about something (English Assistance); synonym: to sympathize with
somebody)
2
Archaic past IInd singular of BE (Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary)
3
To look after a child or animal until adult (idem 1)
4
Laziness (idem 1)
5
Depravity (idem 1)
6
Robert Southey (/ˈsaʊði/ or /ˈsʌði/ (12 August 1774 – 21 March 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic
school, one of the so-called "Lake Poets", and Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 to his death in 1843.
Although his fame has been long eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey's verse still enjoys some popularity.

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dissolved in alcohol) to ease his painful physical ailments from which he
suffered since an early age. In 1801-1802, because his severe attacks of
rheumatism, he took heavy dosages of laudanum, making opium a necessity for
him, which made him soon admit that drugs were greater evil, that his disease.
He went to Malta with the intention to restore his health, but instead it
completed his decline. In 1806 he was a broken man, an inveterate drug addict,
estranged from his wife, suffering from agonies of remorse and terrifying
nightmares. In 1810 he had a quarrel with Wordsworth which was the nadir7 of
his life and expectations.
In the years to come Coleridge’s poetic attempts were sporadic, he wrote
for newspapers and gave a course of public lectures in London; he undertook to
write , publish and distribute a periodical, The Friend, wrote a tragedy Remorse,
which had a successful run in 1813 at Drury Lane Theatre. In 1816, he moved to
Highgate, suburb of London where the physician James Gillman managed to
control Coleridge’s consumption of drugs. The next three years were the most
sustained period of Coleridge’s literary activity: Biographia Literaria, Zapolya
(drama), a book of essays, two collections of poems and several treatises on
philosophical and religious topics. The remaining years of his life spent with
doctor Gillman and his wife were the quieter and happier in his life. He came to
terms to his wife and reconciled with Wordsworth. His rooms in Highgate
became a centre for his friends, where they came to hear the wonder of the age,
the Sage of Highgate’s Conversation (or monologue), which Hazlitt
immortalized in My First Acquaintance with Poets.
When Coleridge died, he left his friends with the sense that an
incomparable intellect vanished from the world (HBL: 417) while Wordsworth
declared “The most wonderful man that I have ever known”; Charles Lamb
wrote: “his great and dear spirit haunts me…Never saw I his likeness, nor
probably the world can see again.”
Coleridge’s years of collaboration with Wordsworth were the happiest and
the most productive of poetry (OIHEL: 288). Approximately at the time they
met, Coleridge invented a poetic form for autobiographical exploration which
encouraged ruminative8 style. They are usually called ‘conversation poems’ and
are blank verse monologue in which the reader can find a silent or envisaged9
hearer. In these poems, Coleridge starts from a domestic situation, like his
cottage, his wife, his friends and baby and then moves to the landscape his
home, in this way leading to some point of illumination.
‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’ is one of such poems. It was written
when Coleridge because of an accident he had to remain confined to a ‘lime-tree

7
Lowest point (Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary)
Worst time in someone’s life (English Assistance)
8
Thoughtful (English Assistance)
9
Imaginary

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bower10’ and could not accompany his friends, Wordsworth and Lamb on a
walk. In the poem, Coleridge follows his friends in their walk and envisages
Lamb’s feeling on seeing the beautiful landscape, as if experiencing the
presence of ‘Almighty Spirit’. At this point, we find similarities with
Wordsworth, yet the two do not share an identical view. Wordsworth finds
nature as an autonomous force, while Coleridge celebrates the one Life or Spirit
which animates both man and natural world.
The optimism, which usually is to be found in Coleridge, is gone in
‘Dejection: An Ode’. The domestic is now replaced with the physical pain and
marital unhappiness. The poet describes a mood of despair or ‘depression’. His
afflictions robbed him that faculty which enables him to respond to nature and
of ‘shaping spirit of Imagination’.
What is ‘shaping spirit of Imagination’? First of all we have to remind the
student that imagination was an important faculty of Romantics. But, while for
the 18th century theorists, Imagination was a faculty which reordered former
sense impression, as the perceiving mind and the perceived object were separate,
for the Romantic poets, the imagination had a greater contribution to make the
record of experience. They mention it with reverence. Coleridge’s ideas on
imagination are set forth in Biographia Literaria. Coleridge divides imagination
into two, the primary, which is the first act of self-consciousness, making
knowledge and perception possible, it unites the perceiver and the perceived into
one act; the secondary imagination, the poetic imagination, it brings the fusion
between perceiving mind and perceived object out into the world. The poetic
imagination represents, therefore, ‘deep feeling and profound thought’ – the
insight – that interpret, shape and re-create its experience. Coleridge’s secondary
imagination was close of primary creative acts of the universe, that possessing it
was so important for the poet, while losing it, was grievously.
Coleridge is known as a poet, philosopher, theologian, critic, journalist
and playwright. As a poet he is known for a small number of poems, namely,
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, ‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘Christabel’.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is said to owe much to Coleridge’s
reading of Renaissance travel literature and it is assumed to be set in the early
sixteenth century. The critic explains the reader that on entering the Pacific, the
mariner says “We were the first that ever burst/ Into that silent sea” and that the
first European to sail into the Pacific was Magellan in 1520. The poem is the tale
of a voyage beyond the limits of the inhabited world; it is a tale of death,
nightmare and hallucination (OIHEL: 292); it is the story of a voyage in which
after extreme suffering there was one survivor, who tries to make sense of his
experience: did he deserve his fate?
Coleridge explains the use of supernatural that its function was to express
elements from ‘our inward nature’. The use of supernatural was for him a

10
A shelter made of wood in the garden (idem 8)

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technique of psychological revelation, allowing the poet to bring into play the
hidden forces of the mind. In ‘The Ancient Mariner’ it is guilt.
The second poem is strange and enigmatic. It is abounds in images having
the clarity and inexplicability of a dream. It is about artistic creation and its
mysterious power. Kubla Khan symbolizes the all-powerful artist. Kubla Kahn’s
pleasure-dome and river may be taken as a symbolic presentation of the
conscious and unconscious in the act of creation. The damsel with the dulcimer
symbolizes another artist.
“Poetry like this, which proceeds by image and symbol, will always elude
interpretation. Criticism may suggest the source of the images, but it cannot
explain their power.” (OIHEL: 293)