Coleridge, Samuel Taylo (1772 – 1834)
Coleridge is a British poet, born at Ottery St-Mary, Devon. Educated at Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge, he imbibed revolutionary ideas and left to enlist. His plans with Southey to find a communist society in the USA came to nothing, and he returned instead to teaching and journalism in Bristol.
Marrying Sara Fricker (Southey’s sister in law), he went with her to Nether Stowey, where they made close friends with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. From this connection a new poetry emerged, in reaction against neoclassic artificiality
. Lyrical Ballads (1798) opens with his magical ‘Ancient Mariner’. After visiting Germany, he developed an interest in German philosophy. In 1800’s he went to Lake District, but his career prospects were blighted by his moral collapse,
partly due to opium.
He rejected Wordsworth’s Animistic views of nature, and relations between them became strained. He began a weekly paper, The Friend, in 1809, and settled in London, writing and lecturing. In 1816 he published ‘Christabel’ and the fragment ‘Kubla Khan’, both were written in his earlier period of
inspiration. His small output of poetry proves his gift, but he is known also for his critical writing, and for theological and politico-sociological works. He died in London.
Coleridge’s most memorable contribution to Lyrical Ballads, and the most substantial product of his direct collaboration with Wordsworth, was ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. The poem was planned jointly, with Wordsworth suggesting some of its significant elements though he contributed next to
nothing to its actual composition
Despite its metrical and verbal debts to the simplicity of the traditional ballad form, the ‘Ancient Mariner’ is distinctly in Coleridge’s manner. The poem takes the form of voyage of discovery, both literally and figuratively, but it is also a psychodrama concerned with the guilt and expiation, the arbitrary murder of an albatross which we are told, appears through the fog “as if it had been a Christian soul”.
The poem defeats precise definition. The Mariner’s experience is tangled and often bewildering; he is not a pilgrim who measures himself by definable spiritual milestones or who encounters and progressively overcomes obstacles; he is, rather, an outcast who witnesses an invisible action which
interpenetrates the physical world.
Despite its framework of Catholic Christian faith an ritual, the mariner appears to discover a series of meanings concerning the interdependency of life, not merely the consequences of breaking taboos. His root back to the place from which he started requires suffering, but his pain is explored in the context of benevolence, and the truths he perceives stretch beyond mere religious formulate into an affirmation of universal harmony.
Kubla Khan, written in the summer of 1797, derives much of its exotic imagery from Coleridge’s wide reading of mythology, history, and comparative religion. The poem famously remains a fragment, because, as the poet explains in his prefatory note, he wrote it down immediately after waking from a profound sleep, at least of the external senses in which he had composed two or three hundred lines but was interrupted by a caller, (a person on business from Parlock).
This “Vision in Dream” remains a riddle, a pattern of vivid definitions amid a general lack of definition, expressed with a rhythmic forward drive which suggests a mind taken over by a process of semi-automatic composition. Coleridge’s third poem, Christabel, was originally intended to be
included in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads but was excluded partly because of Wordsworth’s distaste for its strangeness and partly because of Coleridge’s indolence in leaving the poem yet another substantial fragment.
It is in many ways a complement to the ‘Ancient Mariner’, not simply because it too echoes the style of old ballads, but because it appears to link the nature of Christabel’s experience of the power of life and death to that of the Mariner. The poem is concerned with the attempted penetration of
Christabel’s Psyche by the daemonic force represented by Geraldine, but it also allows for a balancing contrast of the two powerful aspects of nature, the sympathetic and the energetic, and for a symbolic investigation of what Coleridge later called “the Terra Incognita of Our Nature”.
Dejection, an ode, written in April 1802, is the last and most despondent of Coleridge’s conversation poems, marked as it is by an acknowledged failure of response to the phenomenon of nature and by an expression of the decay of an imaginative joy fed by outward forms. The poet’s former shaping spirit imagination, suspended by various afflictions, seems to be no longer subject to external stimuli; the alternative inspiration, a recognition of inward vision, remains as yet a dim positive to set against a series of negatives.
During the early 1800s as Coleridge became increasingly aware of his poetic inspiration and the dissipation of his visionary gleam, he grew compensatingly more interested in the processes and implications of critical theory
Despite the decline of his Pantisocratic ventures and his early revolutionary hopes he continued to speculate around the central principle of his philosophy, the ultimate unity and individuality in creation. Coleridge recognized contraries and complementary states of being, he also attempted to
argue for interdependency, for wholeness, and for continuity in self-consciousness as the dynamic of human creativity. The shaping spirit of ‘Dejection’ manifests itself throughout Biographia Literaria as the unifying power of the imagination.
Biographia Literaria (1817) is digressive series of meditation on poetry, poets and, above all, the nature of poetic imagination. Its complex philosophy draws both from Coleridge’s fruitful relationship with Wordsworth and from a wide range of European thinkers; it is both original and plagiaristic, prophetic and profoundly indebted to tradition, at once a personal apologia and a public discourse on metaphysics. Its most influential attempts at definition concern the distinction which Coleridge draws between ‘Fancy’, which merely assembles and juxtaposes images and impressions without
fussing them, and ‘Imagination’, which actively moulds, transforms, and strives to bring into unity what it perceives.
What Coleridge sees as the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite ‘I AM’ as the ‘Primary Imagination’ is, moreover, nothing less than ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’, a reflection of the working mind of the creator himself
. It is, however, through a discussion of the vital ‘Secondary Imagination’ that he most develops the contrast with ‘Fancy’ for here he describes the mind creatively perceiving, growing, selecting, and shaping the stimuli of nature into new wholes.
In the fifteenth chapter of Biographia Literaria, this definition of the creative imagination is exemplified in a study of Shakespeare’s work, a subject to which Coleridge had addressed himself in his lectures on Shakespeare and to which he frequently returned in the casually diffuse Table Talk (published posthumously in 1808) . Coleridge remains one of the most observant and provocative critics of Shakespeare, one who acknowledges distinctive qualities and yet allows for shortcomings, one who is both genial and reverential yet who shrinks from badolatry.
While he acknowledges that “no work of true genius dares want its appropriate form”, the form of his own criticism is often expressed in bursts of perceptive energy. It is tinged with “the abstracting and
generalizing habit of the practical” which he recognizes as the essential characteristics of Hamlet, a figure with whom the poet readily identified.
Coleridge’s later philosophical writing is preoccupied with religious issues, with the problems of belief and the joy of believing, with a morality concerned with inward impulses and with an informed criticism of the Scripture
. The impact of his attempt to free Christianity from fundamentalism was not, however, appreciated by believers responsive to a culture imbued with Evangelicalism. The Constitution of Church and State (1829), the essay which brings to a climax his concern with dynamic unity, was intended to form part of the national debate on reform.
His vision of a church doctrinally recharged and reinvigorated, and of religion itself as infinitely more than a social cement, his complement by a Clerisy
. This clerisy would not be a disaffected intelligentsia, but a corporate body, integral to the proper workings of a cooperative nation state. As in all his later work, Coleridge attempts to bring together and not to diffuse, to develop tradition by a process of refertilization and not of deracination.