Samuel Taylor Coleridge

'The most happy marriage I can picture or imagine to myself 
would be the union of a deaf man to a blind woman'.

Born in Ottery St.Mary, a little town in Devonshire, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) had already benefited from his education at Christ's Hospital, London, before he went to Jesus College, Cambridge (1791). But he didn't find his studies stimulating there, and became idle as well as indebted.

This  pushed him to even join the Light Dragoons under the pseudonym of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. As a cavalryman he hardly excelled. Fortunately his brothers were able to save him from further embarrassment, enabling him to return to Cambridge. But in 1794, he quit the university without any degree.

In that same year he met Robert Southey, an admirer of the French republican experience. They decided on trying to establish what Coleridge termed as 'Pantisocracy,' which was a sort of Utopian democracy based on equal rule by all.
They were persuaded to go to America to try to launch it, but hardly surprisingly the idea never got off the ground. The result of this enterprise included Coleridge's marriage to a Sara Fricker with whom he was quite happy, at least to begin with.

When he met Wordsworth in 1795, he considered him to be "the best poet of the age". The period of close collaboration with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy who both lived at Alfoxten quite near to where Coleridge then lived (Nether Stowey) was very happy and creative.
Fortunately Coleridge then benefited from an annuity of £150 from the sons of the founder of the famous pottery firm, 'Wedgwood'. This saved him from having to assume the post of a Unitarian minister.

Wordsworth and Coleridge jointly published Lyrical Ballads in 1798 before going to Germany for the winter which triggered off Coleridge's studies of Kant.
Two years later he was to follow Wordsworth to Cumberland, and lodged at Greta Hall, Keswick. Coleridge's marriage had by then broken down and in 1799 he had fallen in love with another Sara (Sara Hutchinson). Wordsworth was to marry her sister Mary, three years later.

Coleridge suffered from rheumatism and other less known ailments for most of his life. The standard prescription to ease pain in those days was Laudanum (opium with alcohol). At the turn of the century until 1801, Coleridge began to realise that the repeated doses were doing him more harm than good. In despair he wrote Dejection: An Ode, published in 1802.
Even a period in Malta did nothing to restore his health. He returned to England in a very sorry state, and more addicted than ever.

A serious quarrel with Wordsworth (1810) and the degraded relationship with his wife, made Coleridge's lamentable situation even worse.
Considering all this, his efforts to continue writing were admirable feats, even though they were intermittent. He even had the courage to write, have printed and distribute a periodical 'The Friend,' for a little more than a year.
The Drury Lane Theatre showed his tragedy Remorse and it was successful enough to last twenty performances.

The remainder of his life he spent in the care of Dr. and Mrs. Gillman in Highgate, London. They helped him control to some extent his opium dependence. He continued to lecture and write for newspapers. He published Biographia Literaria, Zapolya (a drama), and a book of his essays that he revised from 'The Friend'. He also published two selections of poems, and philosophical and religious treatises.
Coleridge was more at peace with himself then, and had made amends with his wife Sara, as well as with Wordsworth.

After Coleridge's death, Wordsworth referred to him as 'the most wonderful man that I have ever known'. For Charles Lamb- 'His great and dear spirit haunts me... Never saw I his likeness, nor probably the world can see again'.

Others were less praising, and it's said that in order to respect deadlines, he often resorted to plagiarism. However, his most famous ballad- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and particularly his haunting poem Kubla Khan, reveal his prodigious uniqueness.

Kubla Khan
A fragment of a vision in a dream

Lord Byron is said to have requested the publication of Kubla Khan as a fragment of a dream, 'more as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.'

Coleridge had a dream whilst under the effects of opium. This was after having read some lines from Purchas's Pilgrimage :
'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.'

Coleridge then fell asleep and had this most vivid and fabulous dream from which he said he could not compose less than from two to three hundred lines- 'without any sensation or consciousness of effort.'
"On awakening he (Coleridge) appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. (...)"

Whilst he was writing someone called on business from Porlock and detained Coleridge for an hour. When he finally returned to his desk, although some of the vision was still vaguely present, a blurred souvenir in his mind's eye, or like the reflected image on a disturbed water's surface, fragmented then irredeemably lost to thick, shrouding mist.

But no doubt this was meant to be, and the poem as such is all the more magic, evocative, moving; and as complete as it was destined to be.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology of English Literature 2. Coleridge's Kubla Khan. Top Image- a coloured 18th century etching of Coleridge, artist unknown. Below- draft of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan (1797-1818) Wikimedia Commons, with thanks. December, 2011

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