Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
In this video, we're going to talk about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was one of the leading Romantic poets. Again, Romantic doesn't mean it's about love, it's a whole movement; it's about nature vs. the city and things like that. Coleridge is kind of a rock star of the 19th century. His life has big hit singles, drug addiction and unrequited love - there's even kind of a band breaking up part of the story that we'll get to in a little bit. It's really exciting and he's a cool dude. So, let's talk about Coleridge!
Coleridge was born in 1772 in a country town in England. His father was the vicar of a local church and headmaster of a local school. He had a ton of kids; he had three kids with his first wife and then ten kids with his second wife. Coleridge was the last of all of those - you can imagine how that might be difficult for him.
His father actually died when he was eight, which was kind of difficult again. He was sent off to a school in London that was basically a charity school to try to give poor kids a good education. It actually worked really well for him.
He read a ton. By the time he was done, he was reading Robinson Crusoe and Virgil, etc. He got a really good foundation in literature. One of the things that really had a lot of influence on him was something that he had read when he was quite young, the Arabian Nights (which is not the opening song in Aladdin, although you can see that it might be related). It's actually a series of stories compiled from the Middle East centering on a girl who has to tell a bunch of stories in order to not be dead. In order to not be killed, she has to entertain - sing for her supper, literally. It sort of gives him an initial outlook into the exotic and things like that. He got really obsessed by one tale about a guy who was trying to find a pure virgin. That really stuck with him, it seemed like. Actually, when his father found this book, he was really not happy and he ended up burning it. It's like if your mom found your Nine Inch Nails albums and then tried to play it backwards to find devil messages or something. He was not happy that Coleridge was being exposed to this kind of literature. Remember - he was a vicar! He was a bit conservative. So this forced Coleridge to rely on his imagination, which comes back later, it's important.
His dad wanted him to be a minister, so that was the original plan. Coleridge went to college and he was going to be a minister, but it doesn't really work out that way. He makes friends who aren't really in that path, he ends up falling in love and getting involved in radical politics, which really does sound quite familiar to a lot of people's college experience.
He ended up going into debt and had to leave school, which is pretty sad. It was really sad because he was totally in love with his friend's sister whose name was Mary Evans. Mary wasn't that into Coleridge, which was a problem. This all led to some bad decision making: he decided he was going to use a fake name and join the British Army regiment known as the Royal Dragoons - which is a great idea for a sensitive poet who was going to be a minister. It sounds like there's no way it could go wrong, right? Well, it did go wrong. He ended up dropping out really quickly and ended up not in a great situation.
While Coleridge was at Jesus College, he befriended the writer named Robert Southey. He's kind of the John Lennon to Coleridge's McCartney. That's maybe a good analogy. They shared the same general outlook on life and hopes for the future.
They hatched a plan to create what is known as a pantisocracy. Which you might say, what is that? Is it a democracy of pants? No, it's not - sadly. It's a utopian society where everyone is equal in status and role. It sounds a lot more boring to me than a democracy of pants! Anyway, that's what it is. They wanted to do this in Pennsylvania. I don't know if that's exactly where I would go in search of utopia, but that's where they wanted it.
So Southey married this woman named Edith Fricker. Then, in 1795, he persuades Coleridge to marry Edith's sister, Sara Fricker. I don't really know how that went - oh yeah, she needs a husband. Why don't you do it? It didn't really work out because he wasn't ever really that into her. Actually, not only was he not that really into her, he kind of hated her and they spent a lot of time apart and they never really got along.
That was 1795, which was a bad year for him in that sense, but a good year in the sense that he met a guy named William Wordsworth , who ended up being a huge influence on him. They bonded over poetry and politics, and within a few years, they were not only friends, but they were collaborating on a lot of stuff. They were really the leaders of this blossoming Romantic Movement in poetry. We've already used the Beatles Southey and Coleridge/Lennon and McCartney metaphor. If we use another music metaphor for Coleridge and Wordsworth, it's maybe like Kanye and Jay-Z. Maybe Simon and Garfunkel might be a little more accurate.
But before Coleridge could be a major poet, he had to figure out a way to make money. Even back then, poetry was not the most lucrative career choice, maybe a bit more so than now, but not by that much. In 1798, he's kind of in real financial trouble again. He was about to fulfill his dead father's wish to become a minister, which by now you know is a terrible idea! Then, these awesome dudes named the Wedgwood brothers offer him a lot of money just to write. So, they give him an annuity of 150 pounds a year, which is nothing by today's standards but was enough by those standards - just because they think he's a good poet and they want to encourage him to write more. If anyone wants to sponsor me, I'm accepting! Alcohol and money are both welcome.
This is a game-changer for him. He's really able to just focus on his work now. About a month after hearing from them - again it's 1798 - he writes Frost at Midnight. This is one of his first major things. In the poem, he talks about his upbringing in the city and he worries and hopes that his son will get to really experience nature. You can see that it's a key Romantic theme cropping up; the importance of nature vs. the city, things like that. An excerpt from that goes:
For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…
Frost at Midnight, as you can maybe see from its address to the son, is known as one of Coleridge's conversation poems which were written over about a dozen years at the turn of the 19th century. As you might guess, they're written in a conversational tone. As you saw in Frost at Midnight, they share the same celebration of nature trait that comes up throughout Romantic poetry. They're also very clearly about Coleridge's friends and experiences. They're very much based on life.
In addition to Frost at Midnight, other notable conversation poems are The Eolian Harp, This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison and The Nightingale (these are the famous ones).
Later on in that same year, 1798 (kind of the big year for Coleridge), he and Wordsworth (remember, Wordsworth is the little Simon and Garfunkel buddy) publish Lyrical Ballads, which is a collection of poetry. It's the thing that's important to the Romantic Movement; the birth of the Romantic Poetry Movement is the publication of this book.
Wordsworth's poems really dominated it, they were the majority, but Coleridge's poem was the big hit of the book: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. We're going to talk about that more later. If Coleridge was the George Harrison of this album, he doesn't write as much but it's the best. That's kind of what's going on here. So, that's one of his big claims to fame.
The following year, Coleridge goes and falls in love with another woman who doesn't love him back. He just can't catch a break. This one is called Sara Hutchinson, and she's actually the sister of Wordsworth's future wife. So, that could get kind of awkward. This doomed love affair led to the poem Dejection: An Ode, which sounds really depressing. It actually began as a letter to Sara, but by the time he published it a lot of that personal stuff had gotten worked out, so it's less of an embarrassing love poem and more of a good poem. It's also known as another one of Coleridge's conversation poems.
Dejection: An Ode is really depressing, and it's really like his emo phase. I imagine him hanging out in the smoking corner painting his fingernails black and all that stuff.
In 1816, he writes this poem called Kubla Khan. He originally wrote it in an opium-induced dream in 1797. So, a while back. And yes, that's as crazy of a story as it seems - that also gets its own lesson, and we'll talk about that more later. For now, it's worth knowing that Kubla Khan is actually one of the most widely read Romantic poems that exist. It's pretty cool. It comes up a lot, and you might have read this in high school and thought this sounds like this guys on drugs. Well spotted, he was on drugs!
In 1816, he also publishes a poem called Christabel, which is one of the last important things he writes. It's a narrative poem; that just means it tells a story. It's about this woman Christabel who's very virtuous and religious, and she runs into a woman in the forest named Geraldine, who might not be - she might be possessed by a demon or something like that. It's actually not finished; he planned a lot more than he was able to write. It just ends with Christabel figuring out that Geraldine might not be all that she says. That's an overview of his major works.
We mentioned the whole opium thing, so we're going to dig into that a little bit more. This is the drug addiction section of the video I'm sure you've all been waiting for. No discussion of Coleridge would be complete without talking about drugs, because he did a lot of them. He was very sickly throughout his life. He had physical problems - he had rheumatic fever as a child, which isn't fun - he also had some mental health problems, like anxiety and depression.
It's like Dr. House. He hurts his leg, then he gets the Vicodin and then he can't get off the Vicodin, which leads to addiction. That's the same thing that goes on with Coleridge. He began taking a liquid form of opium called laudanum, which was totally common back then and it was really a pain killer and a sleeping aid all in one. Again, like Vicodin in that sense - that wonderful feeling when you've gotten your wisdom teeth out and you're lying on the couch drinking smoothies. You can see why someone might get addicted to it. Side note: Abe Lincoln's wife was addicted to laudanum. It was common to be addicted to it.
His dependence was increasing; he became less productive as he got more and more addicted. Drugs are bad! He got to be like Ozzy Osbourne or another aging rock star like Keith Richards. Ozzy didn't always wander around shouting Sharon - he used to be a functional person.
With Coleridge, in the beginning, the opium would help or he would say that it helped. It would give him these visions, and he'd really be able to realize poetry in a different kind of way. But as it went along, it got to be really difficult for him to keep up the productivity with this addiction.
His friends knew he had a problem. He would say that it helped, but it ended up causing a lot of serious problems, especially with Wordsworth. It would give him exciting dreams early on and help him write things like Kubla Khan, but later on, it gave him horrible nightmares and he'd wake up screaming in terror. Ultimately, Wordsworth just had enough because Coleridge would crash at his place and wake up screaming. That was not okay, and their friendship ended up totally dissolving over drugs. So, drugs are bad! They make you not be able to be friends with Wordsworth anymore.
Coleridge was aware of his addiction but he never really got past it. In 1834, he dies at the age of 61.
So, that's Coleridge's life. Basically, to sum him up, he's one of England's most notable Romantic poets. Along with Wordsworth, he championed the themes and ideas of Romanticism - things like nature, innocence and this idea of childhood. He wrote while struggling with a lot of health issues and ultimately this debilitating addiction to opium.
His most significant poems are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - which was part of that Wordsworth collaboration Lyrical Ballads, Kubla Khan. He also wrote Frost at Midnight, Dejection: An Ode and Christabel, which was that last thing, the narrative poem. That is Coleridge and his works.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets