Wednesday, October 21, 2015

POETS: Oct. 21–Birthday, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
This day in 1772 was born the Romantic poet-critic-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England. Like many others, he learned to be a dissenter at Cambridge.

His father was a C of E parish vicar and master of a grammar school who struggled to take care of 14 children from two marriages. Samuel Coleridge was child #14. He liked reading - his favorite book was The Arabian Nights - and was a good student in his father's school. But papa was done in by his multiple responsibilities and died when Samuel was only ten.

Samuel was packed off to board at Christ’s Hospital in London, the "blue-coat school," where the boys wore a blue gown and cap with yellow stockings. Coleridge hated it, but thrived under an English teacher who introduced him to great poetry. He also met Charles Lamb, who became a lifelong friend, and Tom Evans, who had an older sister (Mary) with whom Samuel fell in love.

Since Samuel's late father had wanted his son to be a clergyman, in 1791 Coleridge entered Jesus College, Cambridge to study for holy orders in the C of E. However, during his first year he came under the influence of William Frend, a Fellow at Jesus with Unitarian beliefs and Coleridge's life goals came into question. Perhaps not coincidentally, Coleridge accumulated debt for his brothers to pay off - by no means the last time that Coleridge relied on others to pay off his debts (nobody's perfect).

In June 1794, traveling to Wales, Coleridge met another student, Robert Southey. He  broke his trip to spend time with his new friend talking about implementing Plato’s aristocracy-free Republic. They envisioned joining with ten other families to form a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania in the newly independent colonies, sharing work and beliefs in a free-thinking environment, supported by a great library. (With hindsight, an ideal location would have been Berwick, Pa. - safely above the river and right between rich veins of coal and iron.)

Coleridge dropped out of Cambridge to join the army. He called himself Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. But he wasn't much of a soldier.

Instead of going to war, or to Pennsylvania, Coleridge married Sara Fricker and in 1797 moved to a small house in the country with a vegetable garden. That year he made friends with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. The three went walking in nearby hills called the Quantocks. As the sun went down and the moon rose over the sea. Coleridge came up with the idea for a poem about a sailor who kills an albatross and brings a curse upon his ship. It became The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in a 1798 collection of ballads he published with Wordsworth that was to be the starting gun in the Romantic era of poetry.

Coleridge was physically unhealthy, which may have stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever and other childhood illnesses. He was treated with laudanum, which fostered a recurring opium addiction, anxiety and periods of depression.  In today's language he may have had bipolar disorder. He quarreled with his wife and fell in love with Wordsworth's sister-in-law. He wrote a poem, Dejection: An Ode, and sailed to Malta to improve his health. Coleridge said:
I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book - let him relate the events of his own Life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them.
Coleridge wrote Kubla KhanChristabel, and Frost at Midnight and a prose tome Biographia Literaria. His critical work on Shakespeare and German idealist philosophy was influential. He coined the idea of "suspension of disbelief" in drama. He was a major influence on Emerson and American transcendentalism.

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