A true Romantic poet worth his salt - Samuel Coleridge

21 October 1772, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon.

“Not the poem which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

An engraving by Leopold Lowenstam showing Coleridge ca 1815

Ten years before Coleridge and Wordsworth published their collection of “Lyrical Ballads”, commonly known as the natal hour of the Romantic Movement in English literature, the Gothics, Beckford, Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, as well as continental authors, had already softened up the Classicistic ideal, steering inspirations and tastes towards the unfathomable – in the soul of man as well as in landscapes. And what artists like Thomas Jones, Constable and the young Turner captured on canvas, Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge transposed into poetry. Still shaped by the desideratum to express chiefly nature lyric, the three poets established themselves in Cumberland’s Lake District and coined the term “Lake Poets” at the turn of the 19th century.

H.J. Ford's illustration for Coleridge's "Christabel"
from Andrew Lang's "Blue Fairy Book" (1891)

One of them, though, was never satisfied with indulging himself in nature’s beauty alone. Like a true Romantic poet worth his salt, the nervy, sickly and fanciful Coleridge, who developed a life-long opium addiction by treating his ailments with laudanum (basically a solution of opium and alcohol) already included his famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in the “Lyrical Ballads”. The seaman’s yarn spun by a sailor during a wedding feast seizes upon James Cook’s inspiring journeys as well as the already well-stocked gimmickry of Gothic motifs and was, at first rejected by the audience as being not Romantic enough, not without irony, since Coleridge actually was among the movement’s trendsetter, but soon exerted an immense influence down to lines of the ballad becoming popular proverbs. “Christabel” and “Kubla Khan”, whose imagery has the reputation of being all too close to being an opium induced phantasmagoria, his two other long poems, make up the trinity of texts that manifest Coleridge’s highly influential role among the English Romantics.

"The Ice was all around" -
 one of Gustave Doré's famous illustrations of "The Ancient Mariner"

Besides all his poetic indulgences in fantastic adventures and dream-like places, Coleridge was nonetheless a sharp-witted and considerate literary theorist and, a trait not common by far among authors, a brilliant rhetorician. The theoretical fundament given to the Romantic Movement especially by German philosophers like Schlegel and Schelling as well as the thoughts of already established worthies like Lessing and Kant captured his interest to a degree that he learned the language and introduced the mindscape of German Idealism, so closely intertwined with the Romantic Movement, and related it, like Schlegel, with Shakespeare. The outcome was registered in his “Biographia Literaria”, a collage of autobiographical as well as literary-critical texts that quickly became arguably the most important theoretical testimony of the Romantic Movement in England, no wonder that his contemporaries saw him as a giant among dwarves, even in times that brought forth a flight of excellent poets anyway.

More on