Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Ottery St. Mary on 21 October 1772, youngest of the ten children of John Coleridge, a minister, and Ann Bowden Coleridge. He was often bullied as a child by Frank, the next youngest, and his mother was apparently a bit distant, so it was no surprise when Col1 ran away at age seven. He was found early the next morning by a neighbor, but the events of his night outdoors frequently showed up in imagery in his poems (and his nightmares) as well as the notebooks he kept for most of his adult life. John Coleridge died in 1781, and Col was sent away to a London charity school for children of the clergy. He stayed with his maternal uncle2. Col was really quite a prodigy; he devoured books and eventually earned first place in his class.
His brother Luke died in 1790 and his only sister Ann in 1791, inspiring Col to write "Monody," one of his first poems, in which he likens himself to Thomas Chatterton3. Col was very ill around this time and probably took laudanum for the illness, thus beginning his lifelong opium addiction. He went to Cambridge in 1791, poor in spite of some scholarships, and rapidly worked himself into debt with opium, alcohol, and women. He had started to hope for poetic fame, but by 1793, he owed about £150 and was desperate. So he joined the army.
His family was irate when they finally found out. He'd used the improbable name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache and had escaped being sent to fight in France because he could only barely ride a horse. His brother George finally arranged his discharge by reason of insanity and got him back to Cambridge. It was there that he met Robert Southey, and they became instant friends. Both political radicals4, they began planning Pantisocracy, their own socio-political movement5. Robert was already engaged to a woman named Edith Fricker, and introduced Col to her sister Sara. Within a few weeks, Col was willing to marry Sara, which he did in October of 1795. Robert and Col had started arguing over Pantisocracy, and finally Robert agreed to his family's wish that he become a lawyer instead of emigrating. Robert's best gift to posterity was the fact that he introduced Col to William Wordsworth. It was Col's misfortune that he met Sara6 Hutchinson through William, who would eventually marry Sara H.'s sister. Col fell in love with this Sara almost immediately, putting an extra strain on an already iffy marriage.
With his marriage, Col tried very hard to become responsible7. He scraped together a fairly respectable income of £120 per year, through tutoring and gifts from his admirers8. His Poems, published in 1797, was well-received and it looked like he was on the fast track to fame. He already had one son, David Hartley Coleridge, born September 1796, followed by Berkeley Coleridge in May 17989. In 1798, the famous Lyrical Ballads was published, the collaboration between Col and William which pretty much created the Romantic movement. The authors didn't realize this at the time, of course; they went to Germany with William's sister Dorothy. Col's son Berkeley died while he was away; the baby had been given the brand-new smallpox vaccination and died of a reaction to it. Col, as was typical of him, returned home slowly so as not to have to deal openly with Berkeley's death, and got little work done.
After a string of illnesses brought on by the damp climate of the Lake Country, Col turned to newspaper work in 1801 to try and recover financially. He was convinced he would die soon, and insured his life shortly after the birth of his daughter Sara10 in 1802. In 1804, he left for Malta in hopes of a cure from the warm climate. Here, he spied a bit for his majesty11, who wanted Malta as a British port, though officially Col was the temporary Public Secretary. Col had also hoped for a release from his addiction, but this was not to be. He returned to England in 1806, and, plucking up his courage, asked for a legal separation from his wife. Though Sara was furious, the separation happened. Col's paranoia and mood swings, brought on by the continual opium use, were getting worse, and he was hardly capable of sustained work12. His friendship with William was all but nonexistent, and Col was again writing newspaper articles to earn a living, further supplemented by various lecture courses13. Most of his remaining work was non-fiction, except for a play or two, and included such works as Biographia Literaria(1817), a work on nearly everything14.
He was still haunted by his failure to break free from opium, however, and to this end he moved into the house of an apothecary named James Gillman, asking Gillman to help cut back his opium dose. Like all addicts, though, Col quickly had an alternate supply arranged. Col had apparently separated from his children as well; his friends and relatives had to take up a collection to send Hartley to school, and at one point, he went 8 years without seeing his children15. His London friends, though, loved his conversational skills and continually sought him out. His nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge16, published a collection of Col's conversation called Table Talk, and Col himself was not only publishing new works, like Aids to Reflection(1825), but was reprinting the old in hopes of finally making a real financial contribution to his family. By 1830, the reviews of his work were becoming more and more positive, and he was generally hailed as the finest critic of his day17. He still couldn't reach financial security, however; a government reorganization lost him his pension from the Royal Society of Literature, his one remaining reliable source of income. He died, surprisingly peacefully, on 25 July 1834, leaving only books and manuscripts behind.
Though he's really only known today for his poetry, Col's contributions to the field of criticism and our language were many. For instance, he not only coined the word 'selfless,' he introduced the word 'aesthetic' to the English language. Charles Lamb wrote one of my favorite descriptions of Col in 1817: "his face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Arch angel a little damaged." Cole summed himself up this way, in the epitaph he wrote for himself:
Beneath this sod
A Poet lies; or that which once was he.
O lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C.
That he, who many a year with toil of breath,
Found Death in Life, may here find Life in Death.
Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.