Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems and Biography

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  • 0:10 Early Years
  • 4:07 Early Career
  • 7:08 Major Works
  • 11:38 Opium Addiction
  • 14:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Romantic poet or rock star? Ok, he's a Romantic poet. In this lesson, you'll learn about one of the founders of the Romantic movement and how his life, full of drugs, women and poetry, is not too different from today's rock stars.

Early Years

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.

Early Career

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.

Major Works

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.

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