The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge | Biography


Early Life and Education

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in a Devon village of Ottery on October 21, 1722, the 10th and youngest child of Ann Bowden Coleridge and John Coleridge. His father was a vicar or clergyman and a schoolmaster. Coleridge's childhood was spent surrounded by books, and he read widely, especially romances and fairy tales.

John Coleridge died suddenly in 1781. A year later Coleridge went to London to attend school at Christ's Hospital. In 1791 he attended Jesus College at Cambridge. He continued his habit of voracious reading, and he was interested in imaginative works and visionary philosophy. Due to financial problems, Coleridge left Cambridge in his third year and enlisted in the military under an assumed name. He served less than half a year. Because he was miserable in the military, his family bought out his commission and he returned to Cambridge.

While at Cambridge, Coleridge became embroiled in the political debates of the time—the social and political mayhem of the French Revolution (1789–99) had affected all of Europe—and he befriended the English poet Robert Southey with the idea of setting up a small society. They left Cambridge for Bristol, where Coleridge worked as a public lecturer.

Coleridge married Sara Fricker in October 1795. Shortly after the marriage, Southey and Coleridge abandoned their idea of a separate society. During this time Coleridge and English poet William Wordsworth began to work together, and Coleridge spent the better part of the next decade traveling with Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Coleridge met Sara Hutchinson in 1799 and fell in love with her, which put a strain on his relationship with his wife. Hutchinson ultimately rejected Coleridge.

Writing Career

Coleridge helped usher in the Romantic period of literature in England, along with his friend William Wordsworth, with their joint publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Lyrical Ballads was a sharp change from the contemporary conventions of English poetry, emphasizing natural speech over poetical, simple themes over stylized symbolism, the beauty of nature over urbanization, and emotion and imagination over abstract thought.

Coleridge used a conversational tone and rhythm to unify his poetry to develop a new, less formal style. He became best known as a poet of imagination, one who explored the interplay between the natural world and the mind. Kubla Khan (1816), one of Coleridge's most famous poems, was composed during the aftermath of an opium dream. Famous for the vivid, fantastic imagery, critics considered it a frivolous and unsubstantial work, while others believe it to be a statement about the nature of human genius.

Coleridge and Wordsworth collaborated on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a ballad that first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. The volume was meant to be experimental, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner led the way as the opening work. It was met with mixed reviews.

To make ends meet for himself and his family, Coleridge began his career as a literary critic. His lectures of 1811 and 1812 on British playwright William Shakespeare revived interest in the Elizabethan playwrights. He published his Biographia Literaria in 1817, his response to Wordsworth's Preface of Lyrical Ballads and his musings on English poetry.

Death and Legacy

In an attempt to treat his opium addiction, Coleridge moved to Highgate to live with Dr. James Gillman, a physician, in 1816. He remained there for the rest of his life, writing and preparing lectures. Coleridge died on July 25, 1834.

While Lyrical Ballads is considered more Wordsworth's work than Coleridge's, the imaginative imagery in Coleridge's poems inspired the next generation of English Romantics and Victorians, the period during Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901) that fused Romantic and Realist styles of writing. Poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Algernon Charles Swinburne were all poetically influenced by Coleridge. Coleridge's work helped shape the Romantic movement, and his essays in Biographia Literaria offer invaluable insight into the formation of the theories behind the movement.

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