Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylorlocked

  • John Beer

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1772–1834), poet, critic, and philosopher, was born on 21 October 1772 at Ottery St Mary, Devon, and baptized there on 30 December, the youngest of ten children born to John Coleridge (bap. 1719, d. 1781), vicar of the town and master of the grammar school, and his second wife, Ann, née Bowden (1727–1809). There were also three surviving half-sisters by John Coleridge's first wife, who died in 1751.

Childhood and schooling

From earliest years Coleridge was singularly precocious and imaginative. 'I never thought as a Child', he said, 'never had the language of a Child' (Notebooks, 5.6675). He early showed a devotion to books, claiming to have been able to read a book of the Bible by the time he was three, and the Arabian Nights when he was five. His nurse's preference for his brother Frank caused him, he said, to read at his mother's side and to play only by himself. His precociousness led to flattery from old women and to a growing unpopularity among fellow children: soon he was far more accustomed to the conversation of adults. A quarrel on one occasion in which Frank baited him as their mother's favourite led to his running away from home and staying out all night by the River Otter; he was rescued eventually by a neighbour, Sir Stafford Northcote, though not before he had suffered exposure to which he partly attributed his later rheumatic ill health. He continued to be absorbed in books, notably romances and tales of magic—so much so that his father became alarmed and burnt some of them.

The most traumatic experience of Coleridge's early years, in 1781 when he was nearly nine, was the sudden death of his father in the middle of an October night. Immediately before, John Coleridge had travelled to Plymouth with his son Frank, who was enlisting as a midshipman, a typical move for the Coleridge family, their mother being strongly ambitious for them—even though her husband would have been content for them to become blacksmiths so long as they were happy. The sudden bereavement left Ann Coleridge with the difficult task of planning at short notice for the future of her precocious youngest, and she must have felt that his promise called for a course of action commensurate with his potential. According to Henry Crabb Robinson, Judge Buller, a former pupil of John Coleridge's, said he would take him to London and send him to Charterhouse, an offer which was gratefully accepted; but in the event he arranged a presentation to Christ's Hospital, a school for orphans. Despite its strong academic reputation, Coleridge claimed, the ambitious members of the family felt degraded by this eventuality and his brothers later refused to receive him in his bluecoat uniform. His mother signed the application, nevertheless, and he was accepted. Coleridge departed for London and for a time was looked after by his mother's brother, who treated him kindly and took him round coffee houses to be admired as a young prodigy; in July he was given his uniform and taken to the junior school at Hertford, where again he was treated well before being transferred in the autumn to the great school itself.

Plucked from Devon surroundings where he was looked up to locally while enjoying the intense emotions of family life, and set down in the impersonal surroundings of a late eighteenth-century London school, Coleridge evidently found it hard to forgive his mother for countenancing the dramatic change; it probably accounts for a coldness in their subsequent relationship. Life at Christ's Hospital, as described both by his friend Charles Lamb in 'Christ's Hospital five-and-thirty years ago', and by himself in poems such as 'Frost at Midnight' and his verse 'Letter to Sara Hutchinson', was harsh. Food was poor and meagre, the dormitories spartan; the reaction of the young Coleridge was apparently one of depression and recalcitrance. Despite his omnivorous reading, he acquired in the lower school a reputation for dullness and ineptitude marked by a general unwillingness to learn simple rules of syntax; his older friend Thomas Middleton found him reading Virgil for pleasure, however, and reported the fact admiringly to the headmaster. Boyer, a man of brusque Johnsonian common sense, took notice and ensured that he was put in the way of becoming a Grecian; being addicted also to the infliction of corporal punishment after the pedagogic practices of the time, however, he in no way relaxed his discipline, and Coleridge, while respecting his teaching abilities, maintained that his severities haunted the nightmares of his later life.

The rigours of the school were by no means unremitting. Coleridge was initially received at Buller's house, but imagining himself slighted by being put at the lower table he soon stayed proudly away. Although feeling lonely and neglected as a result, he continued to be entertained occasionally at his uncle's house. His bookishness was meanwhile assisted by a strange incident. A passer-by in the street against whom he struck a glancing blow mistook him for a pickpocket, and relented only on being told that his sweeping gesture had been that of Leander swimming the Hellespont; he was then sufficiently impressed to make Coleridge free of Thomas Boosey's lending library in Cheapside, where he proceeded to devour his way through the whole catalogue. Coleridge describes the effects of this mixture of physical deprivation and imaginative richness on him at fourteen vividly: how he would find himself in Robinson Crusoe's island, 'finding a Mountain of Plum Cake, and eating out a room for myself, and then eating it into the shapes of Chairs & Tables—Hunger and Fancy—' (Notebooks, 5.6675). His brothers George and Luke both went to London, and Coleridge, walking the wards of the London Hospital with Luke and delighted if he could hold a plaster or attend the dressings, became for a time eager to pursue medicine as his career. At another time, not relishing the prospect of proceeding to university, he decided to become apprenticed to a neighbouring friendly shoemaker (possibly hoping to follow in the footsteps of his hero the shoemaker mystic Jacob Boehme). The man accordingly approached Boyer for permission, to be met with such a storm of anger that he retreated forthwith.

Coleridge went on to 'bewilder' himself—a term suggesting Milton's argumentative devils—in metaphysics and theological controversy (Coleridge, Biographia literaria, Collected Works, 7/1.15). A declaration of allegiance to the principles of Voltaire occasioned a flogging of particular severity—the only just flogging, he later claimed, that he ever received at Boyer's hands. A different fruit of his reading was an enthusiasm for the Neoplatonists, whose writings were being translated by Thomas Taylor; Middleton meanwhile introduced him to the poetry of William Lisle Bowles. Nor can he have been unaware of religious developments in London such as the advent of Swedenborgianism, or of the events abroad that were changing human thought—the making of a new sovereign state in America, the stirrings that were shortly to produce the French Revolution.

Other diversions of Coleridge's schooldays included swimming: a dip in the New River with all his clothes on was followed by an attack of jaundice and rheumatic fever that exacted a long period in the school sick ward. He also formed another attachment. Mrs Evans, mother of one of his schoolfellows, he came to regard as a mother more adequate than his own, while Mary, one of her daughters, was the object of his first intense love: they soon agreed that they 'thought in all things alike' (Collected Letters, 1.113). In summer 1789 he revisited Ottery for the first time in many years.


Coleridge left Christ's Hospital on 7 September 1790 and was appointed by his school to an exhibition of £40 a year in the following January, being admitted in his absence as a sizar at Jesus College, Cambridge, on 5 February 1791. He entered into residence the following October, was made a pensioner on 5 November 1791, and matriculated on 31 March 1792. At Jesus he also held a Rustat scholarship, restricted to the sons of clergymen and worth about £25 a year, and was subsequently made chapel clerk; on 5 June 1793 he was elected a foundation scholar. In his first year he seems to have worked hard, encouraged by Middleton (then in his last year at Pembroke College) and won the Browne medal for classical poetry with a Greek Sapphic ode on the slave trade which he read at Commencement. The summer was spent in Ottery, where among other things he helped a friend prepare a paper on recent poetry, probably for the Society of Gentlemen at Exeter.

The following academic year was more eventful. With events in France building up towards the terror, politics were under intense discussion. Charles Le Grice later recalled how the group he belonged to would meet in the evening to discuss the latest pamphlet: 'There was no need of having the book before us. Coleridge had read it in the morning, and in the evening he would repeat whole pages verbatim' (Chambers, 20). In the university, meanwhile, attention became focused on the trial of William Frend, fellow of Jesus College, for publishing a tract, Peace and Union Recommended, in which he attacked the liturgy of the church, expressing views which the authorities, apprehensive, like many in the country at that time, of possibly seditious activities, regarded as dangerous to church and king. At Frend's trial in the Senate House in May 1793 Coleridge was prominent among the undergraduates who thronged the gallery, and narrowly escaped punishment for vociferous applause. After Frend was banished from the university (though without losing the benefit of his college fellowship) Coleridge continued to see him through shared acquaintances in London such as Lamb and George Dyer.

After another visit to his Devon relatives in the long vacation Coleridge returned to college where he participated in a literary group convened by Christopher Wordsworth, expressing his enthusiasm for Neoplatonic philosophy and the poetry of Bowles and reporting to them that his west country associates had rated highly the recently published poems of Christopher's older brother William. By now, problems were accruing. Debts had mounted for Coleridge, beginning with his rashness in ordering furniture thoughtlessly for his college room. He had hoped to meet them first by winning the Craven studentship (for which he was in the final four, the award being made, however, to the youngest) and then by winning the Browne medal again with his Greek 'Ode to Astronomy', but was this time unsuccessful. Earlier in the year, in February, he was addressing Mary Evans 'with the ardour of fraternal friendship' (Collected Letters, 1.52) while being, by his later account, desperately in love with her and knowing that she reciprocated his feelings, yet not daring to declare his love, given his lack of means to support her. Instead, he plunged into a course of life which included associations which he was privately to term his 'Unchastities' (ibid., 2.734). His description in 1803 of a dream in which Sal Hall, a Cambridge prostitute, was importuning him and his account in 1799 to Godwin of waking up in a house of ill fame in London in December that year offer clues to this part of his life.

Enlistment and Pantisocracy

In December, at his wits' end, Coleridge fled to London. There, after spending his last money on a lottery ticket which failed to win, writing a poem on the event, and contemplating suicide, he presented himself as a volunteer for the 15th light dragoons under the assumed name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. Despite the family tradition of military service, it is a measure of his desperation that he was willing to put himself at the service of an army already engaged in a war so unpopular with him and his friends; it is an indication of the army's current need for men that it was willing to enlist so unpromising a recruit. Coleridge described himself as 'a very indocile Equestrian' (Collected Letters, 1.66) and means were soon found by which he could serve without training directly for battle. Meanwhile he took no great steps to guard his anonymity, if accounts are to be believed of how he startled officers by casual interventions betraying his conversancy with the classical languages; eventually his identity was unmasked through a chance meeting in the street with some college friends. Penitent letters to his brothers at the beginning of February were followed by the purchase of his discharge, and he returned to Cambridge, where, it is recorded, he was 'admonished by the Master in the presence of the Fellows' on 12 April 1794.

In spite of this reprieve and his acceptance of the penalties that accompanied it, Coleridge had been unsettled by his military experience and found it hard to resume a normal academic life. By mid-June he was setting off with a companion, Joseph Hucks, for a walking tour to north Wales. On the way they stopped in Oxford, hoping to find subscribers for Coleridge's projected 'Imitations from the Modern Latin Poets', and called on his fellow Grecian Bob Allen, who introduced him to a Balliol undergraduate, Robert Southey (1774–1843). The two young men got on so well that the Welsh tour was delayed for three weeks while they discussed the parlous state of current civilization and brooded on a democratic alternative. Then Coleridge set off on the tour to the Snowdon region, which was marked by an unexpected event: attending church at Wrexham, he saw Mary Evans's sister Anne, and afterwards Mary herself passing his inn. The effect of seeing her again was so overwhelming that social and political questions were momentarily driven from his mind.

On returning to Bristol these questions again assumed full prominence, as the scheme which Southey and Coleridge came to call Pantisocracy (from the Greek, 'government by all equally') took shape—strongly influenced no doubt by the departure earlier that year of Joseph Priestley for America with a plan (never fully carried out) to found a settlement in Pennsylvania on the banks of the Susquehannah. The young men's version was for a community in the same area of North America, consisting of twelve young men and twelve young women who would marry and bring up their children in innocence of the corrupt traditions and conventions of the Europe they had left behind, educating them in principles of wisdom and benevolence that would ensure a better new generation. Opportunely, they came to know the family of Mrs Fricker, a widow whose daughters seemed likely and willing to provide the desired female companionship; Southey was attached to Edith, while Coleridge interested himself in her sister Sara. An important addition to their circle of acquaintance came with a visit to Thomas Poole, an independent-minded tanner at Nether Stowey, who combined social concern with strong common sense, and who listened sympathetically to their ideas. There would be no private property; according to Poole the men expected to labour for two or three hours each morning to support the colony (basing their figure on Adam Smith's calculation that only one-twentieth of working time in Britain was spent on productive labour), while their leisure hours would be devoted to study, discussion, and the education of the children.

As time passed, the planning was dogged by difficulties: the problem of raising sufficient money for the passage, questions such as whether further relatives should accompany them, or servants should have equal status. Coleridge returned for the Michaelmas term to Cambridge, where Pantisocracy became a central topic of interest and controversy. He defended the scheme against all comers but met strong criticisms, including a friend's sharp comment that 'the women' would spoil it (Collected Letters, 1.122). Women were indeed proving to be a problem in another manner. Coleridge had promised to write to Sara but was failing to do so, and his allegiance to the scheme received a sharp set-back when he unexpectedly received a thoughtful and finely phrased letter from Mary Evans, recalling the closeness of their intellectual companionship and exercising all her rational powers in an attempt to dissuade him from the Pantisocratic venture. His feelings for her swept back. Hearing that she was engaged to be married, he wrote shortly after to ask if the story was true, at last declaring his love. Her reply, which has not survived, was evidently a death blow to his hopes. Having left Cambridge during the term to pay a visit to London he lingered, drinking egg-hot, smoking Oronooko, and exchanging condolences with the recently jilted Lamb, while delighting all by his conversation. Southey, increasingly disquieted, wrote pointing out that he must make his intentions clear to Sara, who was being pursued by other men. Eventually he went to London and Coleridge, still mourning the loss of Mary Evans ('my ideal standard of female excellence rises not above that woman'; ibid., 1.145), was reclaimed for Pantisocracy and Sara Fricker.

Lecturing and The Watchman

The two young men now set up as lecturers in Bristol, with Coleridge speaking on political issues of the day such as the slave trade and then undertaking a series entitled 'On revealed religion, its corruptions and its political views'. Politically, he was sailing near the wind, given the recent actions of the government against persons supposed guilty of seditious statements, but the collapse of the London treason trials at the end of 1794 had acted as a safeguard for free speech. His views, attacking the government and the war against France but also condemning the violence of the French Revolution, with a call for wider education and strong criticisms concerning current political abuses of language, were tolerated or ignored.

In October, still acting on the sense of duty instilled by Southey, Coleridge married Sara Fricker (1770–1845). The apprehension he felt was increased by the fact that the church, St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, was closely associated with the poet Thomas Chatterton. The couple spent their honeymoon in nearby Clevedon, where Coleridge showed his growing poetic and speculative capabilities in 'The Eolian Harp', written there probably just before their marriage. He was surprised at his contentment, writing to Southey in November, 'I love and I am beloved, and I am happy!' (Collected Letters, 1.164). Another poem soon followed, 'Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement', when he left Sara for a time while he returned to Bristol, intent on finding a way of meeting his growing responsibilities. In the poem's last line, voicing his future commitment to 'Science, Freedom and the Truth in Christ', Coleridge summarized succinctly the guiding principles of his reformist views, based on those of the admired Priestley and his enthusiasm for scientific investigation, libertarian politics, and Unitarian religion. The Pantisocratic scheme, meanwhile, quietly collapsed, a chief factor being Southey's unwillingness to proceed.

As an important gateway to America and a central outlet of the sugar trade, Bristol was at this time an important centre for new movements and ideas, creating new wealth in the district and not only stimulating a spirit of enterprise, enquiry, and libertarianism but raising political issues such as the employment of slaves in the West Indian plantations. After considering various alternatives, Coleridge decided to start a journal of his own devoted primarily to such matters, to be called The Watchman. A tour to the midlands and north canvassing potential support produced enough subscriptions to make the project a practical one while enabling him to meet leading figures of the day such as Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Wright at Derby. The first number appeared on 1 March 1796, bearing the 'seditious'—yet biblical—motto, 'That all may know the Truth; and that the Truth may make us free!' Publishing every eighth day to avoid the weekly stamp tax, Coleridge relied heavily on extraneous sources, but could also use much writing, including verse, of his own. The magazine lasted for ten issues. In April he also published his first verse collection, Poems on Various Subjects, beginning with his 'Monody on the Death of Chatterton' and ending with the long 'Religious Musings', where he eulogized both Priestley and a new hero, David Hartley, related to his growing psychological interests. 'Metaphysics, & Poetry, & “Facts of Mind”', he wrote to Thelwall in November, 'are my darling studies' (Collected Letters, 1.260). The evidence of his reading is that he was constantly trying to bring together esoteric psychological insights—especially from the Neoplatonists and from modern investigators—to throw more light on the human mind.

Subventions from his friends and a grant of £10 from the Royal Society of Literature helped cover Coleridge's losses but the need to find a means of support was now urgent. An offer of a tutorship fell through, that of a London co-editorship was turned down. An important new association was with William Wordsworth (1770–1850), met the previous year in Bristol and currently living with his sister Dorothy (1771–1855) at Racedown in Dorset: in May Coleridge referred to him as 'a very dear friend … in my opinion the best poet of the age' (Collected Letters, 1.215). Awareness of the Wordsworths' frugal way of life may have prompted a new plan, following the birth of his first child—named (David) Hartley Coleridge (1796–1849) in honour of his new hero—to find a cottage at Stowey near Tom Poole where he might bring up his children 'in the simplicity of peasants, their food, dress and habits completely rustic' (ibid., 1.240). Early in December he wrote to Poole asking him to buy a cottage available there in Lime Street, which Poole (reluctant on grounds of its smallness and dampness) was eventually persuaded by his entreaties to do. The little family moved there at the end of the year.

Collaboration with the Wordsworths

At the invitation of Sheridan, Coleridge began writing a play, Osorio, for production at Drury Lane, hoping for recognition and some financial reward; he also prepared a new edition of his poems for publication by Cottle. A visit from Wordsworth in March prompted a visit to both William and Dorothy at Racedown, where Dorothy responded enthusiastically to his intelligence. Both poets had now finished tragedies, which they read to one another. After a fortnight William returned with Coleridge to Stowey, where he was joined by his sister at the beginning of July; a neighbouring mansion, Alfoxden, being temporarily vacant, Poole negotiated a lease and they moved in shortly afterwards. This initiated an intensively productive period for the three, in which writing was coupled with frequent walks in the Quantocks and beyond, Dorothy's acute sensibility acting as a powerful stimulus to both men. Coleridge entered on the most brilliant period of his career: although oppressed by severe doubts about his ultimate religious beliefs, he was excited by the world of speculation opened out by scientific discoveries concerning oxygen and the vital powers of the human body.

In July Coleridge was visited by Lamb, who joined the walk described in the poem 'This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison', and John Thelwall, whose theories of vitality had recently intrigued him. Having recently been tried and narrowly escaped being found guilty of treason as a result of his progressive political views, Thelwall wished for a quiet place of retirement and hoped to find a house in the neighbourhood. By this time however alarm had been aroused locally by the abortive invasion at Fishguard and the Wordsworths were suspected of being French spies: a government agent was sent down to investigate. His report from Stowey, which has survived in the Home Office papers (domestic, vol. 137, Geo. III, 1797), stated that 'a sett of violent Democrats' had taken possession of Alfoxden; they were not French but a mischievous group of disaffected Englishmen, known to be in contact with Thelwall and with the Tom Poole who had established a 'Poor Man's Club' in the town. Coleridge advised Thelwall that it would not be easy to find a house for him nor politic for him to settle so close.

A few weeks later a new and important figure made his presence felt. Thomas Wedgwood, who knew Wordsworth through the Pinney family and who was, with his brother Josiah, devoted to advanced thinking, had come to Bristol to be under the care of Thomas Beddoes at Clifton, being in poor health. He had recently conceived a plan for educating a genius according to the latest theories by rigidly controlling the sense impressions it received from birth onwards, with hard objects hung around it in the nursery to irritate and no time spent outdoors: 'How astonishingly the powers and produce of the mind would be increased by a fixed habit of earnest thought' (Cornwell, 177–8). The scheme was to be governed by a committee of philosophers, the only likely superintendents he knew being Wordsworth and Coleridge. In September he came over to Alfoxden and spent several days there. The details of the proposed scheme no doubt prompted both poets to reflect on what they considered the proper way of educating genius in children—not by exerting an iron control over all their sense impressions, but by encouraging cultivation of their imagination, even—in Wordsworth's view at least—a freedom to run wild.

Collaboration between them flourished. Early in November the three set out on an excursion to Linton and the Valley of Stones in the course of which a poem was planned, to be called 'The Wanderings of Cain'. In the event Coleridge produced only a draft—and then mostly in prose—while Wordsworth found himself powerless, but different possibilities arose. It may well have been during this same walking tour (in one account, Coleridge, Poems, 232, Coleridge refers to 'the fall of the year') that the 'retirement between Lynton & Porlock' (Notebooks, 3.4006) took place, during which Coleridge, having taken 'two grains of Opium … to check a dysentery', composed in 'a sort of Reverie' (Coleridge, Poems, 232) his poem 'Kubla Khan', to be recited in company on several subsequent occasions and published nearly twenty years later as a 'psychological curiosity' (ibid., 228). (The ‘Cain’ scheme may help to explain some of the imagery of the poem, as well as the significance of the name ‘Can’, spelt thus in the manuscript version.) Coleridge's account in the 1816 preface of being interrupted by 'a person on business from Porlock' whose visit blocked completion of the poem, though in all probability a fiction, has found a permanent place in subsequent literary tradition. In mid-November Dorothy Wordsworth reported that the three had undertaken another, shorter expedition, during which the two poets had laid the plan for a ballad, to be published with some pieces by her brother. This was the first conception of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and of Lyrical Ballads, the volume in which it was published. Although the work was planned jointly, Wordsworth recorded that Coleridge's invention soon took over the ballad as a whole. Just as the content of 'Kubla Khan' had been determined by Coleridge's previous readings in poetry and mythology, he was able to draw for this new poem on his reading in travel literature, supplemented by these same sources. Recognizing it also as a contribution to the growing literature of the supernatural, he planned a further poem, 'Christabel', where he hoped to be even more successful in casting a spell of imagination over a story realistically narrated.

These were not the only poetic fruits of 1797. In the autumn an enlarged version of Coleridge's Poems appeared, freshly entitled Poems, to which are now Added, Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd. Any gratification his two friends might have felt at being included in the same collection seeped away, however, when he sent to the Monthly Magazine under the pseudonym of Nehemiah Higginbottom three 'Sonnets attempted in the manner of contemporary poets', in which, according to his own account, he satirized the defects of all three authors, including himself—notably an 'affectation of unaffectedness' and a cult of 'simplicity'. Lamb and Lloyd were not amused by what they took to be directed primarily against themselves. Lloyd, meanwhile, was producing his novel Edmund Oliver. Coleridge, thinking the hero's 'love-fit, debaucheries, leaving college & going into the army' were clearly based on his own (Collected Letters, 1.404), was resentful in his turn at the breach of confidence.

The Wedgwood annuity

In December Coleridge was invited to stay at Cote House, near Bristol, where the Wedgwoods' brother-in-law James Mackintosh, a gifted philosopher, was impressed by his capabilities and recommended him to his late wife's brother Daniel Stuart, now editor of the Morning Post. The introduction produced helpful offers of work but Coleridge still faced the need to find a settled income to support his growing family. Tom Wedgwood wrote with his brother Josiah shortly after to express concern at his having to look for an inevitably time-consuming profession when he might be developing his talents through further study, and enclosing a draft for £100. Coleridge first wrote, with Poole's encouragement, to accept then decided to return it, on the grounds that he needed a more permanent source of income.

Coleridge had recently been preaching by invitation in Unitarian chapels in his neighbourhood and, according to his own later account, was coming to be thought of by some as the ‘rising star’ of the movement. His friend J. P. Estlin, the minister in Bristol, had heard that John Rowe, the current minister at Shrewsbury, was planning to join him in Bristol and arranged for him to be considered for the vacant post. Accordingly, Coleridge travelled to the Shropshire town, though he thought it unlikely he would be appointed, to meet and preach to the congregation there. Among those present was the young William Hazlitt (1778–1830), who had walked 10 miles from Wem and who described the occasion in his essay 'My first acquaintance with poets':

Coleridge rose and gave out his text ‘And he went up into the mountain to pray, himself alone’ … and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep and distinct, it seemed to me who was then young, as if the words had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe.

Complete Works, 17.108–9

Coleridge, he recalled, discoursed on the necessary separation between the spirit of the world and that of Christianity, describing vividly the evils of militarism: aware that Shrewsbury was home to many aristocrats he was no doubt anxious to put all his cards on the table straight away. He told Hazlitt, similarly, that before accepting the post at Shrewsbury he would have preached two sermons, one on infant baptism, the other on the Lord's supper, showing that he could not administer either. He was attracted by the Shrewsbury post, particularly since its doctrinal requirements would have been minimal: 'it will be necessary for me, in order to my continuance, to believe that Jesus Christ was the Messiah—in all other points I may play off my intellect ad libitum' (Collected Letters, 1.366). While he was considering the position, however, he received a further letter from the Wedgwoods containing the unconditional offer of an annuity of £150 per annum, which after no more than a little thought he accepted, withdrawing his candidacy, looking after Mr Rowe's duty for two weeks, and then returning to Stowey. Hazlitt, who had been enchanted by the visit, was invited to visit Nether Stowey in the spring and did so.

Coleridge was now faced with the need to organize his life in accordance with his newly found independence. The judgement of a later biographer that 'perhaps the worst thing possible had happened to him' since 'it was time for him … to take up his share of the economic burden which is … the common lot of humanity' (Chambers, 90) is hard to support, given the flowering of his genius during the period that immediately followed. In these months he wrote 'Frost at Midnight', completed the 'Ancient Mariner', and produced one or two more contributions for the Lyrical Ballads volume. Considering how he might best spend his time in accordance with the hopes of the Wedgwoods, he concluded that he should fulfil a plan he had been nursing for some time by spending a period in Germany and following the current intellectual developments there, in fields ranging from nervous physiology to biblical criticism. William and Dorothy Wordsworth, whose lease of Alfoxden had not been renewed, agreed to join him. All three no doubt looked forward to seeing life under a political system differing significantly from that in their own country and in the disappointing France, where suppression of the Swiss cantons had led Coleridge to write a poem, called first 'Recantation' and then 'France: an Ode', to mourn the eclipse of liberty signalled by that event, and publish it with 'Frost at Midnight' and 'Fears in Solitude'. (The two men may also have been apprehensive at the possibility of being called on for military service, but there is no direct evidence to support this.)

Germany, 1798–1799

On 16 September the three friends set sail from Yarmouth, accompanied by John Chester, a neighbour and admirer in Stowey. Having arrived in Hamburg, then a centre of political intrigue owing to the international tensions of the war, they called on the poet Klopstock and made their way south, the Wordsworths to Goslar, where they hoped to live cheaply, and Coleridge first to learn the German language at Ratzeburg, then to the university town of Göttingen, at this time one of the most stimulating centres of learning in Europe. Coleridge benefited from his stay in various ways. He was instructed in the language by Tychsen and Benecke and studied the origins of German poetry, particularly the Minnesinger; acquainted himself with Eichhorn's biblical criticism (considerably in advance of similar studies in England); talked with the Kantian philosophers, acquiring a knowledge of the rich Spinozist tradition; and heard the physiological lectures of Blumenbach, to whom he had an introduction. Only in the last case did he suffer a set-back; if he was hoping to hear about the latest work on hypnotism (which had made brief appearances in the original 'Ancient Mariner') it must have been dispiriting to discover that Blumenbach did not even believe in the existence of the phenomenon.

In February Coleridge's second son Berkeley, born the previous May, died of convulsions, but he did not hear the news until April. He was discouraged by Poole from returning home immediately and in the event did not arrive until late July, having in the meantime undertaken walking tours to the Brocken and elsewhere. It is likely that his failure to be with his wife during this time contributed to the subsequent rift between them.

West country and London, 1799–1800

The situation had changed in other ways. Whether or not Coleridge recognized the fact at the time, the German stay had proved to be a turning point in his career. He could not simply return to the provincial English society he had left and take up the threads as he had left them. Although he did not formally acknowledge the fact at the time, his enthusiasm for Unitarianism, also, was dying. Instead he was working out the implications of Spinozism as encountered in Germany. A new and exciting acquaintance was with Humphry Davy, Spinozist poet and experimenter with nitrous oxide, Beddoes's young assistant in Bristol, who was shortly to move to London, where Coleridge would attend his lectures 'to increase his stock of metaphors' (Paris, 1.138). Much as he might strive for a continuity with his earlier west country life, talking to Poole and planning a joint poem on Muhammad with Southey, his true magnetism was to the Wordsworths, now in the north. At Sockburn in co. Durham in October he found them visiting their childhood friends Mary Hutchinson (later William's wife) and her sister Sara, and set off with William and his brother John on a walking tour of the Lake District. At the end he returned to Sockburn, where he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson as they stood together by the fire one evening.

Next Coleridge travelled south to London, where Daniel Stuart had recently offered him a post as staff writer on the Morning Post, enabling him to comment directly on current political events. Exactly how much influence he wielded is hard to determine, and after his death Stuart claimed that his subsequent estimates had been exaggerated. Yet it was a time when the public was especially in need of informed commentary, and the contemporary format of newspapers, consisting mainly of news and advertisements, made contributions such as Coleridge's more prominent. He and Stuart discussed politics constantly, following his changing views during the previous decade: while his dislike of Pitt remained constant, his attitude towards France wavered between a warmth engendered by his earlier radicalism and a forceful patriotism prompted by current French aggression and the fears of invasion. The rise of Napoleon presented the greatest challenge. Coleridge perceived at once that he was a man of 'commanding genius' (His Times, Collected Works, 3/1.208–10) but at first cast him as a French version of General Washington, saving the republic by adherence to strong principles; when it became clear that Napoleon was embarking on a career of conquest, he warned his fellow countrymen not to underestimate his powers. Since some of his articles made a considerable impact, Coleridge's belief that he became a marked man later in Italy need not be lightly discounted.

In London Coleridge worked intensively for a few months, not only reporting on the parliamentary debates and writing political commentaries but translating Schiller's Wallenstein. He also enjoyed the company of William Godwin, seen for a time as a potential ally in developing the radical potentialities of the new age: 'Let me tell you, Godwin!' he wrote in May, 'four such men as you, I, Davy, & Wordsworth, do not meet together in one house every day of the year—I mean four men so distinct with so many sympathies' (Collected Letters, 1.588). He was also moving a good deal in literary society more generally: he cultivated some fashionable women writers, among them Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson, who addressed poems to him and to his new baby son, Derwent Coleridge (1800–1883), and to whom he wrote a poem of his own, 'A Stranger Minstrel'.

Political feelings were currently running high, particularly with the publication of The Anti-Jacobin, in which, along with his poetic associates, Coleridge found himself lampooned. He turned against James Mackintosh, who had recently abjured the principles of support for the French Revolution set forth in his Vindiciae Gallicae (1791) and had attacked Godwin in the 'Introductory discourse' to a series of planned lectures. Taking Godwin's part, Coleridge wrote a scurrilous poem, 'Two Round Spaces on the Tombstone', published anonymously in the Morning Post, and satirized Mackintosh in some lines which Stuart found too personal to include. In April he visited the Wordsworths in Grasmere, collaborating on a second edition of Lyrical Ballads; resolving to settle his family locally, he negotiated successfully to acquire Greta Hall in Keswick. On the way to take up residence, in July 1800, they stayed in Liverpool, where he met several of the local literati, including James Currie, William Roscoe, and William Rathbone. He was impressed by the wealth displayed in such institutions as their Athenaeum, but not unmindful of its source. 'The slave-merchants of Liverpool', he wrote to Poole, 'fly over the head of the slave-merchants of Bristol, as Vultures over carrion crows' (Collected Letters, 1.608).

Keswick, the Scottish tour, and opium

The move to Keswick signalled a further shift in Coleridge's plans for himself. Instead of a London based group which might have rallied the talents of Davy, Godwin, and Wordsworth to a radical new thinking, he had now committed himself more specifically to the Wordsworth circle (including of course Sara Hutchinson) and to William's dream of writing great poetry from the vantage point of retirement in his native countryside. Coleridge's activities in the subsequent period varied between writing articles and poems for London, mostly for the Morning Post, and work toward a more important achievement, largely to be carried out away from the metropolis. (De Quincey, in June 1803, heard to his surprise that Coleridge intended to 'astonish the world with a Metaphysical work … on which he intends to found his fame' (Diary of Thomas de Quincy, 191).) He set to work on studies of thinkers ranging from the ancients, through scholastic writers such as Aquinas to the volumes of Kant he had acquired from Germany—all with the aim of undermining the suppositions of eighteenth-century philosophy. His attitude to Kant was ambiguous. On the one hand he was deeply impressed, naming several works, the 'clearness and evidence' of which 'took possession of me as with a giant's hand' (Coleridge, Biographia literaria, Collected Works, 7/1.153); but when he found Kant identifying the Will with the practical Reason, he questioned his authority: 'Again & again he is a wretched Psychologist' (Notebooks, 1.1717). Nevertheless he was to absorb and use Kant's terms so thoroughly as to be accused of plagiarism; it has even been suggested that he did not properly understand Kant's thinking—though it would be truer to say that he could not always believe Kant had meant exactly what he said and so sometimes imposed his own construction. In the course of these studies Coleridge's health suffered, partly from overwork, partly from rheumatic disorders associated with the dampness of his new surroundings. Increasingly he took laudanum, at this time the common remedy for such disorders, gradually realizing that he had become addicted. His own account threw some of the blame on the ‘Kendal black drop’, a notorious local concoction, which he probably took during the first winter at Greta Hall, and on his discovering in an old medical journal a case similar to his own in which a patient had been cured by rubbing laudanum into the swollen joints while taking it internally, trying it with results that seemed at first miraculous but afterwards proved enslaving.

These accounts should be examined with care, given the known tendency of opium addicts to distort facts concerning their condition. Coleridge clearly found the effects of laudanum pleasant from an early stage, writing to his brother George in 1798, 'you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands!' The 'Kubla Khan'-like imagery causes one to wonder whether he may have sometimes turned to opium in the hope of repeating the miracle that had produced that poem. Some of his accounts of experiences of heightened sensibility—especially in states of convalescence—may also owe something to opium. He distinguished between sensibility and sensuality, however, denying that he had ever taken opium purely for pleasure: 'My sole sensuality was not to be in pain' (Notebooks, 2.2368). It is possible to accept his claim without supposing that either his intellectual curiosity or his liking of comfortable sensations was ever suppressed. Before the penalties of his addiction became apparent, he could regard such fruits simply as a pleasant bonus.

Meanwhile Coleridge's domestic life deteriorated. Despite her devotion to their children, Sara's lack of warm sensibility and hastiness of temper rendered his existence with her, as he put it a few years later, 'incompatible with even an endurable Life' (Collected Letters, 3.7). For sympathy he turned increasingly to Sara Hutchinson, who spent periods both in Grasmere and Keswick. She in turn felt the strain of the relationship, particularly since he insisted that his marriage was indissoluble. After a visit to London at Christmas 1801 he wrote more newspaper articles and in late February went to Gallow Hill in Yorkshire, where he found Sara ill and helped nurse her in her new home; after his return to Keswick he wrote a verse letter expressing his despair which was later pared to less than half its length, readdressed to Wordsworth, given the title 'Dejection: an Ode', and published on the Wordsworths' wedding day, 4 October 1802. A final child, Sara Coleridge (1802–1852), was born in December.

In the following summer, while Mary Wordsworth recovered from the premature birth of her first child, Coleridge, Dorothy, and William decided to renew their threefold companionship on a trip with a jaunting car into Scotland. After a time Coleridge separated from them, setting off to Fort Augustus (where he was briefly arrested as a suspected spy) and then to Fort William and Perth. During this period Southey and his wife, Sara Coleridge's sister, took up residence at Greta Hall. There they stayed for the rest of their lives as Southey assumed control of the house and became increasingly responsible for bringing up Coleridge's family as well as his own. Coleridge, meanwhile, nursed plans to create an 'Instrument of practical Reasoning in the business of real Life' (Collected Letters, 2.947). He had spent time in close discussion of such matters with Thomas Wedgwood (whose health was declining and who was to die, probably of cancer, in 1805).

At first sight, Coleridge's output during this period looks disappointing: the translation of Wallenstein (1800), a handful of poems—few of unimpeachable quality—and some pieces of political journalism. Yet when his letters, full of seminal thoughts, and his notebooks, with their enquiring and intelligent observations—some made in the quiet night watches when he was ill—are also included, the picture is transformed.

Malta and Italy, 1804–1806

With his intermittent illnesses (not to mention the continuing effects of opium) Coleridge came to feel that his best hope was to spend time in a warmer, drier climate. After considering Madeira and other destinations he opted for Malta (a patriotic gesture, given the island's precarious status in the current war with France) and set sail from Portsmouth on 9 April 1804, arriving some six weeks later. Once there, he was taken up by the high commissioner, Sir Alexander Ball, whom he was to eulogize later in The Friend. Asked to perform secretarial duties for a small salary he gained insights into administration, enhanced when he was made acting public secretary the following January; he was not, however, liked by his clerk, who, like Poole and De Quincey, noticed a practice of reproducing the same impressive information for the benefit of successive people. During the autumn he travelled in Sicily and ascended Etna.

Early in February John Wordsworth was drowned when the Earl of Abergavenny, of which he was captain, sank off Portland Bill. Coleridge, receiving the news at the end of March, was deeply distressed, all the more since he had believed that Sara Hutchinson, still the subject of yearning notebook entries, might have found married happiness with John on his return. From now on he made plans to travel back to England (overland, since he dreaded another sea voyage). The stay in Malta had not improved his health and he was increasingly dependent on opium and spirits; he was also oppressed by the noise there.

During this period Coleridge was continuing the long reappraisal of his religious position that had begun during his period of doubt at Stowey. Having been drawn first to Spinozism and then to a combination of the thinking of Plato and St John, he had for a time put his previous allegiances on hold, expressing in 1802 to Estlin, his chief Unitarian friend, a wish that religious deism could flourish in France, being closer to true religion than the 'gross Idolatry of Popery', together with his belief that Quakers and Unitarians were the only Christians pure from idolatry (Collected Letters, 2.893). By 1805 he had come to believe in the centrality of the Trinity: not 'the inanity of Jehovah, Christ and the Dove' but 'the adorable Tri-unity of Being, Intellect, and Spiritual Action' (Notebooks, 2.2444). On 12 February he summed up his new position in the phrase 'no Trinity, no God' (ibid., 2.2446).

For some months Coleridge could not leave Malta owing to the absence of the new public secretary, E. T. Chapman, who was away buying grain for the beleaguered island. When on 23 September 1805 he finally found himself free to leave, he visited Sicily again and then proceeded to Naples, probably with a British troopship. Despite Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, which left him free to attack Italy, Coleridge set off for Rome in December and decided to stay, disregarding rumours of imminent invasion. He met Ludwig Tieck, and translated one of his love lyrics, and made contact with a number of artists under the patronage of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian minister. The beginning of a long, admiring friendship with the painter Washington Allston may have been a chief inducement to his prolonged stay. When Napoleon ordered all British travellers out of Rome he moved through the 'heavenly country' (Notebooks, 2.2856) of the Arno valley to Pisa, making notes there in the Campo Santo, and Leghorn, from which (an overland journey being now debarred by Napoleon's ascendancy) he finally sailed on 23 June 1806.

Restless wanderings, lectures, and The Friend, 1806–1810

On 11 August, after a journey dogged by opium-related medical troubles and a period of quarantine, Coleridge landed at Stangate Creek in Kent and offered a prayer of thanksgiving at a 'curious little chapel' (Collected Letters, 2.1176). Finding it difficult to meet his wife he moved between various addresses in the south, taking up residence in September at the offices of Daniel Stuart's Courier in the Strand. A month later he was writing on religious questions, including his renewed Trinitarianism, and negotiating to give lectures at the Royal and London institutions. Resolved on separation from his wife, he renewed contact with the Wordsworths, who were dismayed at his changed appearance, and spent a period with them and Sara Hutchinson at a farmhouse at Coleorton in Leicestershire which had been offered them by Sir George Beaumont.

This stay was marked by extremes of emotion: on the one hand a growing jealousy of the relationship between Sara Hutchinson and Wordsworth culminated in an incident on 27 December when Coleridge imagined that he saw them in bed together; on the other a reading by Wordsworth on 7 January of the 'Poem to Coleridge' (later The Prelude), which had been enlarged to full length during his absence, prompted the composition of a long poem of his own entitled 'To W. Wordsworth' (published ten years later as 'To a Gentleman', Poems, 436–43) in which, regaining his best poetic style, he expressed his admiration for Wordsworth's achievement and mourned his own predicament.

Part of the separation agreed with his wife was an understanding that Coleridge should take charge of his sons. Feeling the need to reconcile his family at Ottery to the changed circumstances of his domestic life, he arranged a trip with his wife and children to the west country in the summer. Although the family visit was not achieved, illness at Ottery intervening, there was a profitable reunion with Poole; the trip also resulted in his first meeting with De Quincey, who subsequently escorted Sara Coleridge twice to Keswick and made Coleridge an anonymous gift of £300, which he agreed to accept as a loan.

After illness during the autumn of 1807 and renewed contact with an old Bristol friend, John Morgan, whose wife and sister nursed him, Coleridge moved to London to prepare for lectures on 'Poetry and the principles of taste' at the Royal Institution. These were delayed first by Humphry Davy's indisposition and then by illnesses of his own which also prevented him from arriving at all on some occasions, to the irritation of his fashionable audiences. Later, as the lectures became regular, they gained in popularity. A double lecture on education, given at the end on 4 May to compensate for those missed, proved controversial in its advocacy of the principles of his friend Andrew Bell as against those of Joseph Lancaster and offended the proprietors of the institution. He concluded the lectures after giving eighteen.

During the summer Coleridge spent some time with the Clarkson family at Bury St Edmunds, and reviewed Thomas Clarkson's History of the Slave Trade for the Edinburgh Review. A letter to his brother George reproaching him for not having received them the previous summer was answered by one in which his brother said that he considered the separation from his wife 'an irreligious act' (Collected Letters, 3.705). By now Coleridge was making plans for a new journal, The Friend, again to be produced mainly by himself, which would deal not with the events of the day but with the questions of principle raised by them. In September he settled with the Wordsworth family at their recently acquired house in Grasmere, Allan Bank, where he planned to look after his children and work on his new venture, with Sara Hutchinson as amanuensis: it was to be printed at Penrith, calling for a journey on foot over the fells from Grasmere every time a fresh number was ready. Despite the apprehension of some of his friends that it would never appear, and Wordsworth's feeling that this might be as well since Coleridge was unfitted by temperament for any course of action demanding application, a week with Wordsworth's friend Thomas Wilkinson during which he was kept without stimulants helped him to produce the first number on 1 June. From then on, although dogged by problems concerning the supply of stamped paper for its printing, The Friend appeared steadily if irregularly until the twenty-eight issue in March 1810, assisted by contributions from Wordsworth (the first of his 'Essays upon epitaphs' and a fragment of the 'Poem to Coleridge') and Christopher North (John Wilson). Coleridge drew on a variety of sources and subjects, including letters he had sent home from Germany and recollections of Sir Alexander Ball in Malta, but his prime object was to attack the French revolutionary thinkers and their forerunners, comparing Voltaire unfavourably with Erasmus and Rousseau with Luther, and work towards the establishment of better principles in public life. His arguments, which he shared with Wordsworth, helped to establish a principled conservatism in the England of the time.

Quarrel with Wordsworth and despair, 1810–1814

Eventually The Friend lapsed, its demise hastened by the departure of Sara Hutchinson; she left Grasmere, tired, to join her brothers in their recently acquired Welsh farm; Coleridge moved to Keswick for a time, teaching his wife and daughter Italian. He thought that Sara's withdrawal had been secretly encouraged by the Wordsworths, and his suspicions were supported when Montagu, accompanying him on a visit to London, where he hoped to gain help in overcoming his continuing opium problem, told him that Wordsworth had warned him against entertaining Coleridge in his house, and had 'commissioned' him to say that he had been an absolute nuisance in his own and that he had no hope of him. The Wordsworths had privately used the expression 'no hope' about him, and Dorothy had described the difficulties of having him as an inmate (Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 2.397–9), but it is unlikely that Wordsworth had intended to convey their sentiments so directly, however great the provocation. Coleridge was shattered not only by the information but by the means which, as he thought, had been chosen to convey it; he moved to Hudson's Hotel in Covent Garden and nursed his wounds, recalling his constant support for his friend. Meanwhile he kept up outward appearances, powdering his hair, and presenting himself sleek and conversational in company; Lamb described with relish the fate and supposed sentiments of 'goblet after goblet' as he downed them (Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 3.62). The Wordsworths, hearing such reports, failed to grasp the extent of his grievance and did nothing; only private notebook entries fully expressed his despair: 'Whirled about without a center—as in a nightmair—no gravity—a vortex without a center', and 'No hope of me! absolute nuisance! God's mercy is it a Dream!' (Notebooks, 3.3999, 3997). He turned to the Morgans again and lived with them for a time in Hammersmith. At the same time he wrote long notes about the foundations of his Christian faith, mingling them with remonstrances concerning the Wordsworths' behaviour.

Coleridge was helped at this time by the restored presence of Washington Allston, who had taken up residence in London. Coleridge seems to have found in him an acceptable substitute for Wordsworth and was delighted by the 'spiritual' element in his painting, expressed often through images of illumination; he promoted his interests in both London and Bristol, and showed notable perseverance in looking after him when he fell ill a little later. In the autumn he planned a new series of lectures, on the English poets, which began at Scot's Corporation Room, Fleet Street, in November 1811. Byron and Samuel Rogers were among those who attended one or more; 'incomparably the best' of them, according to Henry Crabb Robinson, was in December, on love in Romeo and Juliet (Henry Crabb Robinson, 1.54). In the later lectures, at least, Coleridge drew on Schlegel, whose lectures had been published in 1809–10, after his previous series; his own view of the organic was much more subtly developed than Schlegel's, however, and, like his view of Hamlet's introspectiveness, seminal for future criticism. His sense that he had 'a smack of Hamlet' himself (Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/2.61) struck a chord with his listeners: when he dwelt on the harmful effects of Hamlet's procrastination, one of them remarked 'this is a satire on himself', to which Crabb Robinson replied, 'No, it is an Elegy' (Coleridge, Lectures, Collected Works, 5/1.391).

New work for The Courier during 1811 was not so successful as previous contributions had been; the regularity of his contributions gradually lapsed into more occasional writing, which however continued until 1818. Interest in The Friend was growing, on the other hand, and Coleridge went to the Lakes early in 1812 to organize materials for a reprint. This was his last visit to the area; passing through Grasmere he did not call on the Wordsworths, to the distress of his children. Wordsworth himself left for London in April, hoping to effect a reconciliation; this, after some correspondence on both sides and largely through the good offices of Crabb Robinson, was achieved in May. On 11 May national attention was arrested by the assassination of the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, in the House of Commons; Coleridge hurried to The Courier office to offer his services. His new course of lectures at Willis's Rooms, due to begin next day and postponed for a week as a result of the news, was largely devoted to the drama; by now he seems to have evolved a method of lecturing extempore, while still having a copy of Schlegel to which he could refer. Wordsworth attended some of these lectures and walked with Coleridge, but the relationship was no longer the same.

In the autumn Coleridge's drama Osorio, now renamed Remorse, was accepted for early production at Drury Lane and he published with Southey a joint collection of their notes and observations under the title Omniana. At this point Josiah Wedgwood wrote to say that in his present financial state he could no longer afford to continue paying his half of the annuity unless it should appear that he was 'bound in honour to do so' (Collected Letters, 3.420). Coleridge accepted the position gracefully, while stating in his reply that he had been much calumniated by others—a claim which Wedgwood resisted (ibid., 421 and n.). The remaining half of the Wedgwood annuity, left in trust by Tom, had been made over to Mrs Coleridge; Coleridge had also taken out an insurance policy on his own life, the payments being kept up until his death. During the winter he gave lectures at the Surrey Institute and in January 1813 Remorse was produced with considerable success, to be published later in the year.

A new crisis arose when John Morgan, in whose household Coleridge had been living, first fell ill and then was made bankrupt; while he took refuge in Ireland, Coleridge showed considerable business acumen in devising rescue plans. He also devoted himself to the welfare of Morgan's wife and sister-in-law; there are signs that he found in them substitutes for the lost Hutchinson sisters, with Charlotte at least vestigially a surrogate Sara. During the autumn he met Madame de Staël, who described his conversation as 'tout à fait un monologue' (Southey, 2.332n.), and delivered a further series of lectures on Shakespeare and on education. In December he settled Mrs Morgan and Charlotte Brent for the time being at Ashley, near Box in Wiltshire, and stayed there from time to time. Subsequently he was taken ill at the Greyhound Hotel in Bath and remained in the area for several months in a state of crisis, including guilt about opium. When he felt well enough to deliver a set of lectures on Milton at Bristol in April he alienated his old friend Estlin by his description of Milton's Satan as a scoffing Socinian, while Cottle, grasping for the first time the extent of his addiction, urged him to efforts of will power—eliciting the reproach, 'You bid me rouse myself—go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together, & that will cure him' (Collected Letters, 3.477). Simultaneously, discovering the saintly Archbishop Leighton and his commentary on 1 Peter (later a nucleus for his Aids to Reflection) he wrote repentant notes in its margins. He also called on Hannah More, who told Wilberforce how delighted she was to hear strong evangelical doctrines from this erstwhile Unitarian.

Renewed literary activities, 1814–1820

This was the nadir of Coleridge's career. From the summer of 1814, with the help of his Bristol friend Josiah Wade, he began to plan new work. He outlined his scheme for a work on 'the communicative intelligence in nature and in man' (Collected Works, 11/1.369–70) in which he adumbrated his later writing on the Logos and gave further substance to his long-standing plan for a great work offering a new Christian philosophy for the age. In December he moved with the Morgans to the house of a Mr Page, a surgeon at Calne in Wiltshire, where in the course of the next year he moved a good deal in local society and delivered a speech against the Corn Bill in the market place. A plan to bring together his poems in a new collection led him to ask Wordsworth for a copy of the poem addressed to him and to offer a few criticisms of the recently published Excursion—prompting in turn an attempt to elaborate his critical ideas further in the context of his own life and thought. What was first thought of as a preface to the new collection became his Biographia literaria: not a straightforward or full autobiography, but a more digressive account of his life in the course of which he both explained his objections to the associationist theories of Hartley and offered searching criticisms of Wordsworth's poems—while still asserting him to be the greatest poet of the age. Much more was embraced, however. His ideas of literary growth produced the theory of 'desynonymization', by which words, like twigs and leaves on a tree, gradually diverged and differentiated their meanings. His prime example was the distinction between 'fancy' and 'imagination', expressing the difference between a mechanical making and a creative artistic power linked to the divine. Towards the end of what was to be the first volume (uneasy, perhaps, at the pantheistic implications of such ideas) he drew increasingly on the ideas, and even the phrasing, of Schelling, in a manner condemned by later writers. In the second he mounted a detailed criticism of the social theory of the preface to Lyrical Ballads (to which he himself had contributed) arguing against the idea of a 'natural' language existing among the lower classes and in favour of the one cultivated by living in a Christian civilization. Much of the discourse was written down by John Morgan at his dictation, a mode of composition he increasingly favoured. He thought of writing a tragedy, but in the end settled on a 'Dramatic Entertainment', which he entitled Zapolya: a Christmas Tale (published 1817). This was in due course offered to both Covent Garden and Drury Lane but was rejected by both; it was eventually performed for ten nights at the Surrey Theatre in February 1818.

1816 was a notable year. In April Coleridge met Byron, who had been urging John Murray to publish 'Christabel', and read 'Kubla Khan' to him a few days before he left England for good. One result was the publication of both poems, together with 'The Pains of Sleep', a poem which Coleridge no doubt felt ought to appear alongside 'Kubla Khan' as a corrective to any temptation to laudanum taking that might be encouraged by its preface. The little volume appeared in May, and despite unfavourable reviews was reprinted twice during the year. In April Coleridge also took the momentous step of appearing (with the proof sheets of 'Christabel' in his hand) at the door of the house of James Gillman, a Highgate surgeon, and asking to be taken in as an inmate to help cure his addiction; in the event he was to stay for the rest of his life. Continuing to dictate to Morgan there he also wrote for The Courier and began preparing two Lay Sermons, the first of which, The Statesman's Manual, or, the Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight (particularly notable for its distinction between 'symbol' and 'allegory', pp. 30–31), appeared in December. This and the 'Christabel' volume were both bitterly attacked in the Edinburgh Review by Hazlitt, who resented the accounts of an earlier lakeland escapade of his that he believed Coleridge to have circulated in London and denounced him as a renegade from his earlier political principles. Coleridge poured out his own bitterness to a new acquaintance and admirer of The Friend, Hugh J. Rose.

After the second Lay Sermon, 'Addressed to the Higher and Middle Classes, on the Existing Distresses and Discontents', a response to contemporary post-war unrest, appeared in April 1817, Biographia literaria finally saw the light of day, along with the new collection of Coleridge's poems now entitled Sibylline Leaves, in July. During the spring Coleridge had negotiated with their publisher, Rest Fenner, towards publishing an encyclopaedia, the Encyclopaedia metropolitana, which would attempt to present the sum of contemporary knowledge in an ordered form. The negotiations fell through, since the publisher required him to live in Camberwell where his work could be more closely monitored, but Coleridge did produce a 'Preliminary treatise on method' which appeared as a 'General introduction' to the finished work and was a basis for the essays on method in the revised Friend. (The Encyclopaedia metropolitana became an important forerunner of other modern encyclopaedic enterprises.) During the summer he renewed acquaintance with Ludwig Tieck, first encountered in Rome, a welcome harbinger of contacts with Germany which were now being renewed following the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. Coleridge learned among other things that Blumenbach had abandoned his doubts concerning hypnotic phenomena, prompting him both to revive his own interest and to follow the current wave of interest in Naturphilosophie. For some years he explored such possibilities with his new friend and disciple the surgeon Joseph Henry Green. After a holiday at Littlehampton, in the course of which he met H. F. Cary, the translator of Dante, he lectured in December to the London Philosophical Society on the principles of experimental philosophy and met Wordsworth again. Just as Byron had taken exception to Coleridge's attack on Maturin in Biographia literaria, however, Wordsworth had evidently been offended by some criticisms of his own poetry there and appeared cold and scornful.

1818 began with the delivery of fourteen lectures on the history of philosophy—a familiar method for Coleridge to adopt when wishing to prime the pump of his intellect for work on a difficult subject—to the London Philosophical Society, where he met a new friend and disciple, Thomas Allsop. He also became disillusioned by the behaviour of Rest Fenner (shortly to become bankrupt) and negotiated with the more respectable publishers Taylor and Hessey, who took over until the mid-1820s. In the spring he championed the cause of the child labourers in the cotton mills and wrote several pamphlets in support of Sir Robert Peel's bill to regulate their employment. He also undertook a major revision of The Friend, adding the essays on method, where his ideas of growth were set out more fully, and reordering the whole more coherently. At the turn of the year he began delivering his lectures on philosophy again, along with six on Shakespeare, at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand, continuing until March. On 11 April 1819, while walking with Green in Highgate, he encountered a 'loose, not well-dressed youth' (Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/1.325), a former student at Guy's Hospital who had known Green as his demonstrator, and who after seeking permission walked with the pair for about 2 miles. This was John Keats, who set down a list of the things covered as Coleridge 'broached a thousand things' (Letters of John Keats, 2.88) including nightingales and dreams: to the untutored eye a rich gallimaufry of unrelated topics, but to someone more familiar with his thought an interlinked disquisition concerning the imaginative consciousness. Coleridge later recalled an impression of feverishness in Keats's farewell handshake which had, he claimed, made him think he had not long to live.

A few days later Hartley Coleridge, whose university education at Oxford had been supported largely by Coleridge's relations and friends, was elected, to his father's delight, to a probationary fellowship at Oriel College. Coleridge exerted himself further on the question of child labour as Peel's bill passed the Lords, and began writing from time to time for Blackwood's Magazine. His summer holiday was spent with the Gillmans at Ramsgate, which became their favourite resort in the years following. At this time, also, it was felt by Coleridge's admirers that some records of his extraordinary conversation ought to be kept; Allsop was an early recorder, to be followed from 1822 onwards by Coleridge's nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge (1798–1843), whose notes from then until Coleridge's death formed the basis of the posthumous volumes of Table Talk (1835, 1836).

Towards the great work

The conclusion of Coleridge's lectures in March 1820 left him with the desire to concentrate on his great work, for which he continued to make plans. In May, however, there was a severe set-back in his private life when the fellows of Oriel College refused to renew Hartley's probationary fellowship on the ground of irregular behaviour, including drunkenness. Coleridge, anxiously aware of the implications of his own addiction, wrote a heartfelt and eloquent plea to the provost of the college, Edward Copleston, without success. His own work was becoming more religious in character, with Green acting as the amanuensis for his work on the Old and New Testaments. Early in 1821 he reported good progress on a treatise on logic; he also gave some writing on Prometheus to Hartley, hoping that he might be stimulated to work of his own on the subject. Sundays in that year were devoted to work with Green on his larger work, the Assertion of Religion. Feeling once again meanwhile the need to produce some work of more immediate benefit he turned back to the works of Archbishop Leighton, which had so impressed him at the time of his spiritual crisis in 1814 and proposed to John Murray a selection of his 'Beauties', with comments of his own. At the same time he continued to prepare for his larger work by dictating his 'Logic' to two young men, C. B. Stutfield and John Watson.

Although no further poems on the scale of the unfinished 'Christabel' had been forthcoming, Coleridge never stopped writing verse. He contented himself often with light contributions that could be entered in private albums or included in letters but he also contributed to the increasingly fashionable annuals, keepsakes, and general drawing-room literature, sometimes using such occasions for heartfelt meditations on lost love. By constantly experimenting with new forms and metres he demonstrated yet again his extraordinary versatility. From the 1820s, moreover, the critical climate changed. The adverse criticism that had greeted his poetry in the previous decade, when a stance of incomprehension often masked political hostility, gave way to more sympathetic accounts, pioneered by J. G. Lockhart's article in Blackwood's Magazine in 1820. Such eulogies often dwelt on the new kind of music to be heard in his lines.

The voice of criticism was still raised occasionally, directed now toward Coleridge's prose, with thinly veiled insinuations of plagiarism, as with the 'Noctes ambrosianae' dialogue, attributed to John Wilson, in the October 1823 issue of Blackwood's, in which the 'Opium-eater' is made to characterize him as 'a thief', albeit 'a man of surpassing talents'. 'Strip him of his stolen goods, and you will find good clothes of his own below' (p. 500). The best comment on this and related aspects of his personality was Wordsworth's: 'The activity of his imagination, which I must call morbid, disturbs his sense & recollection of facts' (Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/1.546): his occasional cavalier way with the truth ought, in other words, to be regarded as the defect of his distinctive excellences. It also enabled an expansiveness in conversation. From November 1823, when the Gillmans moved to The Grove in Highgate, with an extended bookroom upstairs where Coleridge could entertain guests for his 'Attic nights' (Collected Letters, 5.368), it became common to call on Thursdays and hear the greatest talker of his time holding forth by the hour in what he admitted were all too often his 'oneversazioni' (ibid., 6.790). Earlier that autumn at Ramsgate he enjoyed the renewal of another old intimacy when he re-encountered Sara Hutchinson, who reported his comment that kissing a baby was 'the next best thing to Bathing in the Sea' (Letters of Sara Hutchinson, 263). Their paths had already crossed in London through common acquaintance with the Monkhouse family and they met socially on subsequent occasions, her kindly behaviour to him possibly prompting the bitter poem 'The Pang more Sharp than All'.

Aids to Reflection and later work

The 'Beauties of Leighton' scheme having been declined, along with a proposal that Murray should publish the 'Logic', Coleridge offered the Leighton volume to the publishers Taylor and Hessey in August 1823 under the title 'Aids to reflection' and they accepted, agreeing to include a life of Leighton (afterwards dropped from the scheme), and also to publish his 'Logic' manuscript (the 'Elements of discourse'), followed by the ambitious 'Assertion of religion'. The main body of the Leighton volume, meanwhile, which had begun by following the original scheme fairly closely, began to change shape as Coleridge completed his groupings of 'Prudential' and 'Moral and Religious' aphorisms and moved into the final one, devoted to the 'Spiritual'. The task of defining this for his culture brought to a head many of his most difficult problems. How far could the spiritual be aligned with the natural? Despite the fact that the earlier pages were already in proof, the scope of the work spread as Coleridge drew on passages from other early Anglican writers. Some of his comments were affected by anxieties about Derwent and his association with sceptical friends at Cambridge, including the young T. B. Macaulay (about which after a time he was able to report more reassuring news). In February 1824 he reported that the volume had been 'growing and new-forming itself' (Collected Letters, 5.333) under his hand.

Early in 1824, when Coleridge was visited by his wife and daughter, he was delighted to discover how marvellously the intellectual and imaginative powers of the young Sara had developed: she was, he said, 'every thing (save that her Health is delicate) that the fondest & most ambitious Parent could pray for' (Collected Letters, 5.336). During her visit Henry Nelson Coleridge's diary recorded that he had become secretly engaged to her—an attachment which was to cause Coleridge anxiety in view of the dangers associated with marriage between first cousins.

Work towards completion of Coleridge's volume was affected by other events. In March he was elected a ‘royal associate’ of the Royal Society of Literature, with an annuity of £100 in return for a yearly essay. A misunderstanding of some sort with the Gillmans arose shortly afterwards, and he withdrew from their house for a few weeks, before a reconciliation brought him back. In June he was visited by Carlyle, whose acid, not altogether unappreciative, account in his Life of John Sterling (1851) became famous, and in January 1825 Gioacchino de' Prati introduced him to the work of Giambattista Vico, which delighted him. March saw him delivering his first (and, as it proved, only) essay to the Royal Society of Literature, on the Prometheus of Aeschylus.

Aids to reflection in the formation of a manly character on the several grounds of prudence, morality, and religion was finally published in June. The bishop of London (prompted by the Beaumonts) expressed his approval and favourable opinions came not only from previous well-wishers but from some who, like Joseph Blanco White—a refugee priest from Spain who found its arguments a powerful support for the Anglicanism which he had since espoused—were discovering him for the first time. Among enthusiasts for the volume was James Marsh, president of the University of Vermont, who liked it for encouraging its readers to think for themselves and more particularly for opposing 'pseudo-Calvinism'. Although Coleridge the poet had long had his admirers in North America, Marsh's American edition of Aids to Reflection initiated a new wave of praise for him there as a religious thinker. Following the first crossing of the Atlantic under steam in 1826 a number of prominent Americans such as James Fenimore Cooper and Emma Willard visited him in succeeding years.

Encouraged by the appearance of Aids to Reflection, Coleridge proposed six new disquisitions to Taylor and Hessey: on faith; on the eucharist; on the philosophy of prayer; on the Hebrew prophets; on the church; and on the use of the scriptures. Of these the last already existed, to be published only after his death as Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1840). His delay may have been partly due to diffidence about presenting for general publication a view of books of the Bible challenging uncritical and total acceptance of their inspiration while in his notebooks extensive work on the interpretation of others such as Genesis was more or less taking for granted their divine status. He was also attracted for a time to the eloquent preaching of Edward Irving, the current focus of fashionable religious attention in London through his interpretations of biblical prophecy; soon, however, he became disturbed by Irving's lack of intellectual discipline.

The great work or 'Logosophia' (referred to also as his 'Opus maximum') was again resumed, though the 'Logic' (thought of by some twentieth-century writers as the most coherent among Coleridge's achieved philosophical works) found no publisher and remained in manuscript. The major effort of his writing, meanwhile, went increasingly into marginal annotations on other writers and into the notebooks he had kept since youth—fragmentary observations and critical comments which would not find full reproduction and commentary until more than a hundred years later. He was also generous with his time to those who visited him in a spirit of discipleship and free enquiry, including John Sterling, A. H. Hallam, and Richard Monckton Milnes, early members of the Cambridge Apostles.

Former coolnesses were forgotten when Coleridge agreed at short notice to accompany Wordsworth and his daughter Dora on a tour of the Rhineland and the Netherlands from late June to early August 1828. He was in particularly good spirits that summer. His poetical works, which had gradually been growing over the years, were published in three volumes by Pickering—not the last edition in his lifetime but the last to be produced fully under his supervision. During these years he could also be gay. In 1824 Robinson met him at a 'dance and rout' at the house of Joseph Henry Green, and heard him declaim on his favourite topics in the dancing-room (Robinson, 1.307). On 18 August 1828 he participated in a bachelor dinner party during which he and Theodore Hook threw glasses through the window panes and then participated in a sport of throwing forks at wineglasses. Lockhart described his 'roseate face … lit up with animation, his large gray eye beaming, his white hair flowing, and his whole frame, as it were, radiating with intense interest' as he joined in (Chambers, 308).

The later history of Coleridge's opium taking, meanwhile, is obscure. He reports no further struggles to free himself from overwhelming addiction, and it is clear that in some sense the battle was over. Indeed, one might think that he had left off the drug entirely were it not for the existence of letters, including some to the Highgate chemist T. H. Dunn between 1824 and 1833, which make it clear that he had obtained supplies privately for some time before and was continuing to do so. It is possible that the short rupture between himself and the Gillmans in the spring of 1824 was connected with a discovery that he had been obtaining amounts surreptitiously; what is not clear is how far Gillman himself succeeded in regularizing his supply so as to contain the addiction. Two things can be established: that in 1832, when in letters of April he wrote to Green that it was '5 weeks' since he had taken laudanum, and to H. F. Cary of the 'miracle of grace' that had worked 'a sudden emancipation from a 33 years' fearful Slavery' (Collected Letters, 6.899, 901), and when his wife could write in August that he had 'intirely left off the use of Laudanum' but had 'suffered greatly by the effort' (Potter, 165), he ordered supplies from Dunn both in January and December, suggesting that the 'emancipation' was at best short-lived. When he was on his deathbed two years later, also, his medical attendants gave him injections of laudanum to ease his pain.

Continued orders for opium did nothing to assist Coleridge's financial state. Having received nothing from the 1828 edition of his poetical works, he participated in a reissue of 1829 and received £30 as an advance; £20 of this was sent to Mary Morgan, who, with Charlotte Brent, was now living in poverty following John Morgan's death in 1820 and had already been helped the previous December. He also made further publishing plans. In January 1829 he negotiated with Taylor (whose partnership with Hessey had been dissolved in 1826) terms for a second edition of Aids to Reflection, along with two volumes of his philosophical system and one on the use of words. A month later he was forced to give up further work on the first of these projects: a revised edition of Aids to Reflection did appear later in the year but from the firm of Hurst, Chance & Co., substantial alterations being found only in the early pages.

Final writing and death, 1829–1834

Religion had in the meantime come to the fore among national issues, as the position of Roman Catholics was debated and George IV agreed to a discussion in cabinet in January 1829. Coleridge, who had refused in that month to sign a petition against Catholic emancipation, felt that he must clarify his own position and turned back to his former plan for a disquisition on the church, producing—with unexpected speed considering his state of health—his pamphlet On the Constitution of the Church and State. The work, remembered particularly for advocating the establishment of a 'clerisy', an educated class between the laity and the ordained clergy that should further the purposes of the church in a Christian society, confutes the supposition that in later life his work was invariably digressive and inconclusive. Drawing on the images of vine and olive, respectively, and recalling the benefits accruing from their cultivation side by side, he argued for preserving an intimate relationship between church and state. The argument, with its relevance to current concerns, was presented clearly and cogently; only the last pages left a ragged effect. A promised appendix entitled 'What is to be done now?', which may have been intended to provide a rounded conclusion, was never in the event added. A second edition was swiftly called for, nevertheless, and although published too late to affect the issue of Catholic emancipation, the legislation for which had been passed during the year, was seen by some readers as a powerful defence of the Anglican establishment. Others such as Keble and Pusey found that dealing with its arguments led them to assert the church's independent authority and the need to avoid state interference; the meeting in 1833 which launched the resulting Tractarian movement was held at Hadleigh rectory, home of Coleridge's friend Hugh J. Rose. When Newman read the pamphlet some years later, his rejection of Coleridge's presentation of Christianity as a religion of symbols was important in driving him to find authority in the Roman Catholic church.

In the spring of 1831 Coleridge was irritated to find a poem on which he and Southey had earlier collaborated, 'The Devil's Walk', being republished as 'by Professor Porson' and took steps to ensure its reissue with the true authorship asserted. Parliamentary reform was very much in the air; while not committing himself to print on the subject he repeatedly voiced his opposition, and, when the legislation was eventually passed, his despair. A legacy of £300 from Adam Steinmetz and an annuity by a Mrs Dashwood in the last month of his life came too late to help establish financial independence, and in his will he could bequeath to his children little more than his affection and gratitude to the Gillmans.

Although increasingly ill, and frequently confined to his room for long periods, Coleridge found it possible in 1833 to attend the meeting of the British Association in Cambridge, where he met Michael Faraday, who, he thought, had 'the true temperament of Genius' (Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/1.392–3), acquired at least one new follower, William Rowan Hamilton, and complained about the hardness of the beds: 'Truly I lay down at night a man, and arose in the morning a Bruise' (ibid., 392). He was visited in London by Emerson, who was disturbed to find him by now so rigid in his religious opinions, once again found himself much restored by bathing in salt water at the sea, and composed his epitaph, in which he prayed that he might be granted forgiveness rather than fame, and after his long death-in-life attain life in death.

In the following spring the appearance of a red erysipelas streak on his cheek, associated by him with his night on the Brocken in 1799, convinced him that his end was imminent. He lingered for four months more, but with an increasing desire for liberation from the body. His mind, he said, remained unclouded: 'I could even be witty' (Collected Letters, 6.992). In his last years 'by-gone images, and scenes of early life' would steal into his mind 'like breezes blown from the spice-islands of Youth and Hope'—which, he went on, were the 'two realities of this Phantom World' (ibid., 705; Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/2.296).

In July Coleridge became severely ill, though still without organic disfunction, and said farewell to his friends and relatives one by one. Green was called in to hear some final words for the 'Opus maximum', a declaration of the need to reaffirm God as the absolute good who is also the eternal 'I am' and yet to preserve a distinctity, allowing for the operation of the Logos. Finally he asked to be left alone 'to meditate on his Redeemer' (Collected Letters, 6.991). On 24 July Gillman saw him fall into a sleep which became comatose and he died at 6.30 the following morning. At his request an autopsy was carried out, revealing an unusual enlargement of his heart, apparently of thirty years' standing.

On 2 August Coleridge's body, followed in due time by those of other members of his family, was buried in a vault in Highgate churchyard, with a number of his young followers in attendance, including Charles Stutfield and John Sterling. When a new chapel was built for Highgate School in 1866 the vault became part of the building; there was some dispute as to responsibility for its maintenance, and it fell into disrepair. Eventually, in 1961, the remains of the Coleridges were reinterred in St Michael's Church, close to the Gillmans' house in The Grove.

Appearance and personality

Observers differed about Coleridge's physical appearance, disagreeing even about the colour of his eyes. Most agreed, however, that their first impression changed once he opened his mouth. 'He is a wonderful man', wrote Dorothy Wordsworth in June 1797.

At first I thought him plain, that is for about three minutes: he is pale and thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips and not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair. But if you hear him speak five minutes you think no more of them. His eye is large and full, not dark but grey; such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind.

Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 1.189

Coleridge's own self-description, written a few months before, had been equally unsparing, with not dissimilar positive touches:

my face, unless when animated by immediate eloquence, expresses great Sloth, & great, indeed almost ideotic, good nature. 'Tis a mere carcase of a face: fat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression.—Yet I am told, that my eyes, eyebrows, & forehead are physiognomically good—: but of this the Deponent knoweth not. As to my shape, 'tis a good shape enough if measured—but my gait is awkward, & the walk, & the Whole man indicates indolence capable of energies … I cannot breathe thro' my nose—so my mouth, with sensual thick lips, is almost always open.

Collected Letters, 1.259–60

In middle life he became more corpulent; Keats's account of his 'alderman-after dinner pace' (Keats, 2.88) and Carlyle's evocation of his snuffling voice as he discoursed on 'om-m-mject' and 'sum-m-mject' (Carlyle, chap. 5) develop features of his former self-description. But although his early brilliance was sapped by disappointment and illness—to the extent that even by 1806 the Wordsworths could hardly recognize him when he returned from Malta—his physical resilience was almost as remarkable as his mental. Lamb's comment of 1816 has become famous: 'I think his essentials not touched, he is very bad, but then he wonderfully picks up another day, and his face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Arch angel a little damaged' (Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 3.215). Lamb recalled Paradise Lost (1.742–3) again in another eulogy: 'He would talk from morn to dewy eve, nor cease till far midnight; yet who ever would interrupt him,—who would obstruct that continuous flow of converse, fetched from Helicon or Zion?' (Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1.351–2). In 1829 John Wheeler's account of their first meeting added a touch of the elfin:

… soon saw an elderly man come peeping out from the shrubbery … an elderly man scarcely of medium stature, of full habit. white & long hair with a full face, full forhead, prominent orbits of eyes … His respiration rather hurried & oppressive from taking snuff in great quantities.

Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works, 14/2.429

All would have agreed that such itemized descriptions had little to do with their central sense of the man: 'The only man I ever met', wrote Hazlitt, 'who corresponded to the idea of a man of genius' (Complete Works, 5.167).

From the beginning of his career Coleridge was a polarized man—divided between attraction to what his own powerful imagination favoured, and a sense of the demands imposed by his original clerical background. The disjunction is already present in his poem of 1795 'The Eolian Harp', where he first indulges in the delights of near-pantheist speculation on a pleasant autumn evening and then reproves himself (in the person of Sara) for indulging unhallowed thoughts. It haunted his attraction to the sympathetic temperament of Sara Hutchinson, as against his belief in the indissolubility of marriage. It also played a key part in his opium addiction, where, not understanding the nature of withdrawal symptoms, he made repeated will-driven attempts to break free of the habit, only to collapse into resumption when the painful effects of deprivation overwhelmed him. In view of his post-mortem examination it is in any case likely that his physical debilities made the need for palliatives irresistible.

The positive benefit of Coleridge's divided nature was an ability to think and work in more than one psychic dimension. At his best he could do this brilliantly as in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', where the effect of dramatizing the conflicts in his own psyche was a lack of direct consistency assisting the sense of mystery. In the case of 'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan', where the effect was also achieved, the conflicts ran too deep to allow full completion. Yet it is not in his poems that the effects of his self-division are experienced most sharply: there and in his more poetic prose descriptions he is always capable of a sensuous brilliance and delicacy which possess a virtue all their own. It is in his more philosophical works that the reader becomes conscious again and again that by trying to reconcile the moral and the natural, the ancient and the new, Coleridge is attempting a task beyond his powers and most probably beyond the powers of any human being. Yet the same developments have served to clarify his intellectual stature, showing how far he was caught in contradictions that in time became steadily more evident to his successors. In that sense he was a great allegorical figure.

Posthumous reputation

Commentators always had difficulty in characterizing the special nature of Coleridge's achievement: indeed, his true legacy lay, perhaps, in the creativity he awakened in those he met. Lamb, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Byron, and Keats, touched by him in turn, each manifested the effects in the quality of their writing. According to Thomas Arnold 'I think with all his faults old Sam was more of a great man than anyone who has lived within the four seas in my memory' (A. Stanley, Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., 1844, 2.56). De Quincey, in an access of extreme enthusiasm after his death, termed him 'the largest and most spacious intellect, … the subtlest and most comprehensive, that has yet existed among men' (De Quincey, Coleridge, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, new ser., 1, 1834, 509).

Since the early 1820s it had been in Cambridge that his standing was strongest. Julius Hare, tutor of Trinity College, recalled how under the influence of Coleridge's conversation one felt one's soul teeming and bursting 'as beneath the breath of spring' (J. C. Hare, Memorials of a Quiet Life, 1873, 2.87); a number of students, including John Sterling and Frederick Denison Maurice, members of the Cambridge club which came to be known as the Apostles, agreed. 'To Coleridge', said Sterling:

I owe education. He taught me to believe that an empirical philosophy is none, that Faith is the highest Reason, that all criticism, whether of literature, laws, or manners, is blind, without the power of discerning the organic unity of the object.

J. Sterling, Essays and Tales, 1848, xv

Arthur Henry Hallam, another Apostle, called him 'the good old man, most eloquent' (A. H. Hallam, Writings, ed. V. Motter, 1943, 42–3, 160–71).

Thinkers such as these produced what came to be known as the broad-church movement, and in some cases the beginnings of Christian socialism. Across the Atlantic, in the same years, Coleridge's influence, while affecting writers such as Emerson and Poe, was most strongly felt in religious and theological fields, particularly in New England and Vermont. It would in time extend to a few philosophers such as John Dewey, who maintained that he had shown how one might be 'both liberal and pious' (C. Lamont, Dialogue on John Dewey, 1952, 15–16). It is sometimes suggested in addition that Coleridge's influence was manifested in Tractarianism, though it should be noted that Newman and his associates, despite their respect, were concerned to combat the Coleridgean idea that the church could be rescued by treating its doctrines as symbolic. Coleridge's exhortation to concentrate on the statements in the Bible that find the reader, and his attempt to introduce into Britain critical modes of reading the Bible that had become well known in Germany, proved similarly controversial, the eventual publication of his major statement under the concessive title Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit being delayed until 1840.

More secularly minded readers who found themselves beset by the growing doubts of the time found that the account in his 'Dejection' ode of the ills induced by over-developed habits of analysis rendered with unexpected exactitude a drabness of feeling they recognized from experience: indeed, such writers might recognize in his often fragmentary and divided thinking some self-contradictions of their own. The arguments in which he urged the reader to adopt an empirical approach to Christianity on the ground that only if one did so would the truth of the doctrines be revealed had a strong appeal for minds that wished to move from such questioning to action. Meanwhile, however, in his Life of John Sterling, Carlyle, a great proponent of the need for action, was stirred to write a chapter which disparaged Coleridge's reputation as a sage, blaming his influence for the propagation of 'strange Centaurs, spectral Puseyisms, monstrous illusory Hybrids, and ecclesiastical Chimeras,—which now roam the Earth in a very lamentable manner!' (pp. 69–80).

The divided response that can be discerned even within Carlyle's account when read in full was displayed more equitably by Matthew Arnold. While censuring Coleridge's moral weaknesses he believed his view that Christianity was identical with the highest philosophy to be one of the crucial ideas for his time: 'it is true, it is deeply important, and by virtue of it Coleridge takes rank, so far as English thought is concerned, as an initiator and founder'. It was, he thought, 'henceforth the key to the whole defence of Christianity' (M. Arnold, Prose Works, ed. R. H. Super, 11 vols., 1960–77, 10.226–7). Arthur Hugh Clough, Thomas Arnold's star pupil and a close friend of Matthew's, was less happy with such a view, on the other hand, writing in 1841 that he kept 'wavering between admiration of his exceedingly great perceptive and analytical power and other wonderful points and inclination to turn away altogether from a man who has so great a lack of all reality and actuality' (A. Clough, Correspondence, ed. F. L. Mulhausser, 2 vols., 1957, 1.106). Such modified attitudes were reinforced from 1859 onwards by the impact of Darwin's Origin of Species, as the forcefulness of earlier arguments concerning religion and morality declined and a new intellectual and moral stringency was demanded. The possibility of defending Christianity by retreating to permanent elements that would survive the assaults currently being mounted—a hope which Coleridge's work had seemed to support—faded as religious significance drained from the post-Darwinian universe.

In these circumstances Coleridge's more permanent gifts came to be found less in his religious teaching than in his poetry, his criticism, and his psychological insights, including his capacity for viewing the mind at more than one level. As his ideas were rediscovered by aesthetes of the late nineteenth century, beginning with Walter Pater, he reached a new generation through the first full collection of his Letters and the selection from his notebooks entitled Anima poetae, both of which were edited by his grandson and published in 1895. In the twentieth century such production of his writings turned into a flood, as the letters and notebooks were both edited in full and a collected edition of his entire works, including his marginal annotations, was set in process. Running, with their notes, to about fifty volumes, they dispelled for ever the legend (which he himself had sometimes helped to propagate) that he had been unproductive.

During the twentieth century Coleridge's reputation was sometimes affected by new movements in literary fashion. The rise of imagism at the time of the First World War prompted one study of considerable power: John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu (1929), in which the remarkable visual effects in the poetry were traced to remembered images he had discovered in his reading, particularly in travel books. Unfortunately, however, Lowes disparaged Coleridge's intellectual pursuits, encouraging a view of the poetry that concentrated simply on its vividness and its associative qualities. If the other concerns were in danger of being neglected, however, other studies showed that they could not be ignored. I. A. Richards's Coleridge on Imagination (1934) renewed the sense of his critical theories and their importance, while studies towards the end of the century discussed the impact of contemporary political events and the extent of his own involvement. In other work Coleridge's relevance to religious thinking continued to figure strongly, while his psychological insights, contributing to what might be termed a 'psycho-synthetic' view of the mind, received constant attention, often in the form of sidelong references rather than extended discussion. The possibilities of thinking in such a way were explored further by writers such as Virginia Woolf, whose novels and literary criticism rested on a dual mode of perception similar to his, and Ted Hughes, with his belief that every poet must, like him, create his own mythology. With the growing interest in popular culture towards the end of the century Coleridge became iconic to a larger public, his problems with opium being reinterpreted by proponents of the drug culture while his supernatural poems provided a frequent quarry for new works in art and music; such matters as the nature of his relationship with the Wordsworths and even of the 'person from Porlock' who interrupted composition of 'Kubla Khan' were explored not only in biographical studies but also in poems and dramatizations.

This tendency towards universal approbation has not gone unchallenged. From the middle of the nineteenth century negative views included accusations of plagiarism in which the note of moral reprobation often sounded. A century later the theme was resumed in Norman Fruman's Coleridge: the Damaged Archangel (1961), which surveyed extensively the range of his unacknowledged borrowings. Other writers, by contrast, stressed his originality, which the fuller publication of his writings served only to emphasize. The countless writers whose writings betray the existence of their debts would no doubt endorse the tribute of Wordsworth, whose chosen word in 1834 was the same as his sister's had been in 1797 (Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 1.188): Coleridge was 'the most wonderful man he had ever known' (Prose Works, 3.469).

In spite of such admiration, nevertheless, commentators have always had difficulty in characterizing the distinctive nature of Coleridge's achievement, some of the best attempts recalling John Stuart Mill's description of Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham as 'the two great seminal minds of England in their age':

By Bentham … men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? and by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? … With Coleridge … the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations or generations of mankind, was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for.

Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, 40, 99–100

In that formulation Coleridge the 'inquiring spirit', the bridge-builder between ancient truths and modern growings, receives a portion of his due that has increasingly supplemented his reputation as poet and critic.


  • The collected works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. K. Coburn and B. Winer (1969–)
  • Collected letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. (1956–71)
  • The notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. K. Coburn, 4 vols. (1959–) [5 vols. projected]
  • S. T. Coleridge, Poems, ed. J. Beer, new edn (1999)
  • The letters of Sara Hutchinson from 1800 to 1835, ed. K. Coburn (1954)
  • The letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 1787–1853, ed. E. de Selincourt, 2nd edn, rev. A. G. Hill and others, 7 vols. (1967–88)
  • The prose works of William Wordsworth, ed. A. B. Grosart, 3 vols. (1876)
  • The complete works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (1930–34)
  • A diary of Thomas De Quincey, 1803, ed. H. A. Eaton [1927]
  • The collected writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. D. Masson, new edn, 14 vols. (1889–90)
  • Henry Crabb Robinson on books and their writers, ed. E. J. Morley, 3 vols. (1938)
  • The letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. H. E. Rollins, 2 vols. (1958)
  • The works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas, 7 vols. (1903–5)
  • The letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. W. Marrs, 3 vols. (1975–8)
  • Selections from the letters of Robert Southey, ed. J. W. Warter, 4 vols. (1856)
  • Byron's letters and journals, ed. L. A. Marchand, 12 vols. (1973–82)
  • The journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. W. H. Gilman and others, 16 vols. (1960–82)
  • T. Carlyle, The life of John Sterling (1851)
  • Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (1950) [incl. introduction by F. R. Leavis]
  • D. Stuart, ‘Anecdotes of the poet Coleridge’, GM, 2nd ser., 10 (1838)
  • J. Gillman, The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1838)
  • E. K. Chambers, Coleridge (1938)
  • J. Cornwell, Coleridge, poet and revolutionary, 1772–1804: a critical biography (1973)
  • R. Ashton, The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: a critical biography (1996)
  • R. Holmes, Coleridge: early visions (1989)
  • R. Holmes, Coleridge: darker reflections (1998)
  • V. Purton, A Coleridge chronology (1993)
  • E. S. Shaffer, ‘Kubla Khan’ and The fall of Jerusalem (1975)
  • T. McFarland, Coleridge and the pantheist tradition (1969)
  • E. P. Thompson, ‘Disenchantment or default?: a lay sermon’, Power and consciousness, ed. C. C. O'Brien and W. D. Vanech (1969)
  • S. Potter, Minnow among Tritons: Mrs S. T. Coleridge's letters to Thomas Poole, 1799–1834 (1934)
  • C. W. Dilke, Papers of a critic, 2 vols. (1875)
  • C. Carlyon, Early years and late reflections, 4 vols. (1836–58)
  • T. C. Grattan, Beaten paths and those who trod them, 2 vols. (1862)
  • J. Beer, ‘Coleridge's “great circulating library”’, N&Q, 201 (1956), 264
  • H. W. Piper, The active universe: pantheism and the concept of the imagination in the English Romantic poets (1962)
  • J. A. Paris, Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831)
  • T. May, ‘S. T. Coleridge: the 1818 child labour pamphlets’, N&Q, 49/1 (2002), 30–31


  • BL, lecture notes, Egerton MS 3057
  • BL, letters, notebooks, and literary papers, Add. MSS 47496–47554
  • BL, memorandum book, Add. MS 27901
  • BL, notes, treatises, and papers, Egerton MSS 2800–2801, 2825–2826
  • BL, transcribed prose, letters, and marginalia, Add. MS 63785
  • BL, various printed works with his MS notes and additions
  • Boston PL, letters and papers
  • Bristol Reference Library, MS poems, letters, and a commonplace book
  • Duke U., Perkins L., notebook
  • Eton, letters
  • FM Cam., corrections to ‘Poetical Works’; letters
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. and literary MSS
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters and papers
  • Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, papers
  • Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
  • Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, corresp.
  • Jesus College, Cambridge, papers and corresp.
  • Morgan L., corresp. and papers
  • NYPL, MSS and notebook
  • Ransom HRC, family papers
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, letters
  • St John Cam., annotated ‘Christabel’
  • Swedenborg Society, London, letters
  • University of Toronto, Victoria University, corresp., notebooks, and papers
  • V&A NAL, MS of ‘The Friend’ and letters and instructions to Brown the printer and Joseph Cottle
  • Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, letters
  • Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, literary MSS and corresp.
  • Yale U., papers
  • BL, corresp. with Thomas Poole, Add. MSS 35343–35345
  • BL, letters to Daniel Stuart, Add. MS 34046
  • BL, corresp. with Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Wedgwood, Add. MSS 35343–35344
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Josiah Wedgwood & Sons
  • County Reference Library, Bristol, letters to John Prior Estin
  • CUL, letters to W. Kinglake
  • DWL, letters to Henry Crabb Robinson
  • Keele University, Wedgwood papers, corresp. with Josiah (II) Wedgwood and Tom Wedgwood
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Blackwoods
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, corresp. with Sir Humphry Davy


  • P. Vandyke, oils, 1795, NPG [see illus.]
  • R. Hancock, drawing (pencil and wash on paper), 1796, NPG
  • W. Shuter, oils, 1798, repro. in Coleridge, Collected letters, frontispiece
  • pastel drawing, 1799, repro. in Holmes, Coleridge: early visions, jacket
  • W. Hazlitt, portrait, 1803
  • G. Dance, black chalk drawing, 1804, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria
  • J. Northcote, oils, 1804, Jesus College, Cambridge
  • W. Allston, oils, 1806, Harvard U., Fogg Art Museum
  • M. Betham, miniature, 1808, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery
  • G. Dawe, bust, 1812
  • G. Dawe, chalk drawing, 1812, Chanter's House, Ottery St Mary, Devon
  • W. Allston, oils, 1814, NPG
  • C. R. Leslie, pencil drawing, 1816, repro. in A. W. Gillman, The Gillmans of Highgate (1895)
  • C. R. Leslie, pencil drawing, 1818, repro. in Coleridge, Collected letters, vol. 5
  • T. Phillips, oils, 1818–21, repro. in Coleridge, Collected letters, 4.912
  • Cooper, oils, 1830, Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, London
  • M. Haughton, oils, 1832, Christ's Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex
  • J. Kayser, pencil drawing, 1833, repro. in Coleridge, Collected letters, vol. 6
  • A. Wivell, drawing, 1833
  • J. Gillman, death mask, 1834, repro. in A. W. Gillman, The Gillmans of Highgate (1895), facing p. 13
  • L. Haghe, lithograph, pubd 1835 (after T. Phillips), BM, NPG
  • T. Woolner, bronze memorial, 1875 (the Bluecoat Group), Christ's Hospital, Horsham, West Sussex
  • W. H. Thornycroft, marble bust, 1885, Westminster Abbey
  • G. Coleridge, bronze bas-relief plaque, 1932 (after Thornycroft), Ottery St Mary churchyard, Devon; copy, Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1933
  • D. Maclise, drawing, V&A; repro. in Fraser's Magazine, 8 (1833), 64
  • C. de Predl, chalk drawing; copy, oils, 1826, Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, London
  • R. Stone, Westmorland green slate memorial, St Michael's Church, Highgate, London
  • W. Wagstaff, stipple (after A. Wivell), BM, NPG; repro. in The works of Lord Byron, ed. Moore, 17 vols. (1832–3)

Wealth at Death

approximately £2560—insurance policy: E. Coleridge, Memoir … of Sara Coleridge by her daughter (1873)

Gentleman's Magazine
Notes and Queries