Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): was Wordsworth's close associate and 'his spirit brother'. The Lyrical Ballads of 1798 were their joint product and here they divided the field of poetry between them. While Wordsworth set himself to shed the light of imagination on real life, on the most ordinary incidents and people, Coleridge planned to naturalize the supernatural and to give 'a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.

Coleridge born at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire and educated at Christ's Hospital and Cambridge, Coleridge was enisted in the Light Dragoons in France.

      Coleridge was born in 1772 at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire and educated at Christ's Hospital and Cambridge, Coleridge was enlisted in the Light Dragoons in France. In 1794 he became acquainted with Southey with whom he planned the founding of an ideal republic in America. They lived together at Bristol; here he lectured, wrote poetry and issued a newspaper called The Watchman - all with the idea of converting humanity. At this time he met Wordsworth and thus began his life-long friendship with the poet. The two friends planned their joint production of Lyrical Ballads which ushered in a new era in English poetry.

      Coleridge, the son of a country parson. The future “logician, metaphysician, bard” was a dreamy and indolent lad, fond of fairy tales. Sensitive, introspective, highly imaginative and lazy, the child was in every respect father of the man. In 1781, at the death of his father, he became a student at Christ’s Hospital in London. Even at this early age, he suffered from bad health, particularly rheumatic trouble, the legacy of a childish runaway adventure.

      At Cambridge 1791-1794, he became an ardent republican and the leader of a band of enthusiasts, apparently more addicted to wine parties than to the pursuit of learning. Soon he became engaged in a scheme for the reformation of the human race. The scheme bore high-sounding name, Pantisocracy; and was communistic in essence. The scene of action selected was the backwoods of America. But the scheme had to be abandoned when it came down to the matter of ways and means.

      In 1706 he published his first volume of Poems on Various Subjects. A year later he met William Wordsworth, a memorable meeting that provided the beginning of a memorable friendship. The stimulus of Wordsworth’s friendship helped to mature his poetic genius while the company of Dorothy Wordsworth also had the happiest effect upon his imagination.

      Coleridge marriage in 1795 to Sarah Fricker did not prove a happy one owing to an incompatibility of temperament. At about this time, he also met Hazlitt who, like everyone who came in contact with Coleridge, was enthralled by his personality. By 1807 or so, his revolutionary enthusiasm had died away and he threw in his lot with the Tory politicians. In religion, too, he evinced a conservative reaction.

      In 1798 appeared The Lyrical Ballads, a joint volume by Wordsworth and Coleridge, which brought fame to both. But early in the new century Coleridge’s health broke down, and as a comfort for the physical pain that afflicted him, he took to opium “which acted like a charm, like a miracle.” The tyranny of opium spread its dark shadow over the remainder of Coleridge’s life. He has given us some account of his state of mind in the pathetic Ode to Dejection.

      Coleridge health consequently was a see-saw, and although his imaginative powers, excited to additional brilliance by the narcotic, flamed out at intervals, his power of concentration seemed growing weaker and weaker. A voyage to Malta and Italy affected little good. Urged on by friends he started a course of lectures in London which achieved much success. A subsequent course on Shakespeare proved even more striking. He fascinated his audiences by his eloquence of thought and expression.

      In 1819, Coleridge received a blow by the expulsion of his son Hartley, on account of intemperance, from his Oxford fellowship. The scholastic success and brilliant promise of his boy had always been a joy and a pride to Coleridge. He saw in the boy’s degradation the inheritance of his own weakness of will. His health became worse and he plunged more deeply into opium. His days of literary work were now things of the past. It was as a talker, and one of the most marvelous that ever lived, that he is noted during the last ten years of his life.

      In the summer of 1834, Coleridge felt that he was dying. On the evening before his death he dictated to a friend portions of his Religious Philosophy till he fell into a state of unconsciousness and a few hours later passed quietly away. “Richly imaginative, subtly humorous, acutely discerning; with a genius for friendship no less than for letters, he left an indelible impression upon all with whom he came into contract.” Despite his weaknesses of character, he was essentially a great man. Lamb has appropriately called him ‘an Archangel slightly damaged’

      Coleridge was born at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire and educated at Christ's Hospital and Cambridge, Coleridge was enlisted in the Light Dragoons in France. In 1794 he became acquainted with Southey with whom he planned the founding of an ideal republic in America. They lived together at Bristol; here he lectured, wrote poetry and issued a newspaper called The Watchman - all with the idea of converting humanity. At this time he met Wordsworth and thus began his life-long friendship with the poet. The two friends planned their joint production of Lyrical Ballads which ushered in a new era in English poetry.

      Coleridge contributed The Ancient Mariner and three other poems to the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge studied German philosophy on the continent, returned to England and for a time lived in the lake district with Wordsworth and Southey. In 1800 he was at Keswick and here he wrote the second part of Christabel and his Dejection ode. He also wrote the strange fragment Kubla Khan, (1798) born of an opium dream. The rest of his life was devoted to prose, to sketches of a philosophic doctrine inspired by German thinkers and the mystics, and to lectures on literary criticism. His Biographia Literaria is a most valuable work of criticism. His Lectures on Shakespeare inaugurated the era of romantic criticism of Shakespeare. He brought out the hidden beauties of Shake speare's characters. Coleridge wrote several other poems, including Frost at Midnight and Frame: An ode. In Frost at Midnight, he gave his idea of Nature similar to that of Wordsworth. But in 1802, he wrote Dejection Ode in which he laments the loss of his 'shaping spirit of imagination'. He here produced a theory of nature quite opposed to that of Wordsworth.

      "We receive but what we give". His other poems include 'Love' (1799) which depicts his romantic passion and This Lime Tree Bower my Prison first included in a letter which he wrote to Southey on 9th July, 1797. Coleridge, among the Romantic poets of England was endowed with the finest and the most versatile genius. The blossoming of his genius was brief and the fruit was rich and wonderful. His supernatural poems The Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan are remarkable for their intense imaginative power, witchery of languages, simplicity of diction and exquisite melody of versification. These poems transport us into an alien, supernatural world and he has done that with such artistic skill that the story creates in our mind a feeling of absolute reality. Coleridge was an 'epicure in sounds' and in The Ancient Mariner and Christabel, he reached the highest point of verbal beauty ever attained by the English lyrical genius. His perfections of style and rhythm and a refinement of sound and cadence have influenced the later poets like Keats, Tennyson and the pre-raphaelite poets. His poetry fulfills the definition of romanticism as 'the renascence of wonder'. His play The Remorse was on the recommendation of Byron was produced in 1813 at the Drury Lane Theatre.

      As a poet. Coleridge is a strange and baffling figure both in life and poetry. By sheer force of genius, he has ushered in the great age of English romantic Poetry along with his friend Wordsworth. His fame rests now on a surprisingly small output, hardly half a dozen pieces and some of them mere fragments. His early poetry when he is brooding a good deal on the complex questions of philosophy and politics and reform of mankind, is usually formless, wordy and diffuse. But a very distinct change comes over the spirit of his poetry after his meeting with Wordsworth in 1797. There is a growing sense of wonder and delight and fresh rapture in his handling of the themes of nature. Such poems as This Lime Tree Bower,' Frost at Midnight, Fears in Solitude, belong to this period. But the full flowering of his genius has come (in 1797-98) with the Ancient Mariner, Christabel (1797-1800) and Kubla Khan (1797-98) and Coleridge at his highest has no rival even among his great contemporaries. To have written one of these poems alone have brought him within the small circle of the the supreme makers of verse. Each of its kind is unique.

      Coleridge's reform in English poetry has mainly concerned with the technical side of the art. Before his time the rhythms employed by English poets has been almost exclusively iambic or trochaic and the tradition tendency is to confine them more and more within the heroic couplet. The heroic couplet from its narrow limits gives little scope for liberty or variety of movement, and howsoever effective for the purposes of the epigram, is an inadequate vehicle for the expression of powerful emotion. Coleridge, advancing along the line of invention is opened by Chatterton, converts the ancient rhythms and metres of the language into vehicles for his own imagination, thought. His ear is haunted by the possibilities of the metrical tunes suggests to him by his study of ballad poetry; and he is associated these with the shange, and as it seems to him, supernatural experiences of his own imagination, with genius akin to that of a musician. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he shows that it is possible, through the ballad form, to give expression to a marvellous series of supernatural incidents. Christabel is an illustration of the beautiful and picturesque effects that may be created in the fancy by the combination. Coleridge has consciously formulated the return of English verse to the principle of accentuation which is most suitable to its spontaneous rhythm. Christabel is written in lines of four accents, where the number of syllables varies on a very large scale, the pattern of the melody swelling or subsiding with the needs of the musical suggestion; while the light, ample cadence of the anapaest is introduced with delicate facility among the shorter measures. This example of judicious freedom is at the source of the vast development in prosody which accompanies the expansion of modern English lyricism.

      There are two main elements in Coleridge's poetry (i) psychical and (ii) intellectual. The former lends to the poet's work a pervading sense of mystery and the latter accounts for the power of limpid expression and masterly execution of rhythmic effects which are so evident in the best of his poetry. In his handling of mystery or the supernatural Coleridge takes a line of his own.

      He has very little to do with crude horrors, gibbering ghosts, witches cauldrons, creaking gallows, dark corridors and trap doors. He does not deliberately set out to make the flesh creep but brings home to the readers the dramatic truth of the emotions which he deals with. He forces on the readers, to use his own vivid phrase "a willing suspension of disbelief." He gets his marvellous magical effects by a hundred little subtleties-hints and nuances and suggestions. As Compton Rickett observes regarding The Ancient Mariner "The Mariner himself gathers up into his own person the elements of romance - with the glittering eye, his skinny hand, his arresting voice, and the spiritual misery that drives him into speech to ease his tortured soul. The Supernaturalism of the poem, is an atmosphere that suffuses the entire tale; the outcome of a hundred delicate touches and subtle hints, makes convincing to the reader by the profound psychological insight of the poet": The same writer observes on Christabel: "Whether it be taken as an allegory or merely as another excursion into the dream-world of fantasy its beauty and magic are indisputable." Summing up Coleridge's achievement the critic finally comments. "His supreme strength lay in his marvellous dream faculty; one might add that the dream faculty lay at the root of his greatness as a poet and his weakness as a man. But there is no finer dreamer in English verse; this quality is that gives distinction to The Ancient Mariner and Christabel and makes of Kubla Khan so superb a triumph."

      "After Christabel, the poet never reached the height again, though a few minor pieces survive of his later writings, dealings with Dejection, Love and Hope, that show some measure of his ancient cunning. It was not a decline of poetic power as in Wordsworth's case, but an arrest of poetic power, of creative imagination. His imagination was as rich as ever, his intellect as restless and keen, but they sought expression in channels other than those of verse". (Compton Rickett). Various explanations have been offered to account for this sudden disappearance of creative power, such as defects of character especially infirmity of will. But Rickett points out, "The peculiar character of his poetic inspiration, its sudden outbursts, its dream like character, the mysterious way in which it would come and go, leaving him unable to complete what he had begun; these things suggest something that might well visit a youthful imagination, and then, when the flush of youth and youth's sensibility had passed, itself melt away. The wind bloweth where it listeth."

      As a Philosopher. As a philosopher, Coleridge has been a sower of germinal ideas. His indebtedness to German philosophy has probably been overrated. He becomes acquainted with it at a time when his normal personality has already been formed, and he is never thoroughly acquainted with it. The doctrine of Kant, interprets in as much as it is founded a new metaphysics, encourages his own tendencies. He takes up the distinction between understanding and reason, only to push it to conclusions very far removed from those of Kant. He borrows from Schelling what in his intellectual absent-mindedness he fails to acknowledge. Taken as a whole his work reveals a general parallelism with the intuitive, idealistic, and historical movement of ideas which gives German Romanticism its essential character. But, he himself declares that he is just as much the disciple of national tradition, and of Burke. He is not the master, but the immediate predecessor of Carlyle. John Stuart Mill sees in him the principal source of the reaction which an age animated with the will to believe, and basing his inner life upon the feeling of spiritual mystery, shows against the rationalism of mechanical explanations, and the extension of a scientific ideal to the things of the soul. Through the intermediary action of thinkers who are also believers as F.D. Maurice, Coleridge's influence has helped to nurture the decisive revival of idealism in the time of Carlyle, and in adjoining circles of thought.

      As a Literary Critic. In literary criticism his achievement is lasting. No one before him in England has brought such mental breadth to the discussion of aesthetic values. His judgments are all permeated by a trend of thought that is strongly under the influence of doctrinal preconceptions; even in this domain, he is the metaphysician. The well-known differentiation between imagination and fancy, which Wordsworth has interprets after his own fashion, is a way of laying stressive association of the mind as opposed to the passive association of mental pictures; but for Coleridge, it has a mystical significance. This feeling for the secret link existing between problems, together with his habit of intermingling, even perhaps of confounding them, by no means deprives him of a penetrating sharpness of vision of precise points. In Biographia Literaria certain intentions as well as certain successes or failings, of Wordsworth are caught and illuminates to their depths, so searching is the light, that it is even cruel. His remarks on Shakespeare show a sound intuition of the profound unity of dramatic art. Accustomed as he is to reach to the heart of things, to find there the same vital impulse which animates his own thought, and to see this secret life produces what becomes the apparent world of the senses, Coleridge is thus able to discern with an unerring insight the paths along which a central impulse has radiated so to speak, towards all the fundamental ideas, aspects, and characteristics of a work. Modern English is indebted to Coleridge for some of its soundest principles as well as much of its terminology and many of its famous dicta.

Chief Works of Coleridge

      Coleridge’s Three wonderful poems. Of his poetry, Stop ford Brooke remarks: “All that he did excellently might be bound up in twenty pages, but it should be bound in pure gold.” Thus among his a few good poems, Coleridge’s imagination can best be appreciated in Kubla Khan, Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “It is difficult to criticize such poems; one can only read them and wonder at their melody, and at the vague suggestions which they conjure up in the mind.”

Kubla Khan:

      Kubla Khan is a fragment painting of a gorgeous oriental dream picture, such as one might see in an October sunset.” The whole poem came to Coleridge one morning when he had fallen asleep over Purchas, and upon awakening, he began to write hastily. He was interrupted after fifty-four lines were written, and he never finished the poem. In this poem (composed, if we accept Coleridge’s statement, in an opium-induced dream), the images which had been deposited in the unconscious from Coleridge’s reading about subterranean rivers, pleasure palaces, and other esoteric scenes and marvelous phenomena surged up and were expressed immediately in words without the exercise of conscious art. The piece has been regarded as a masterpiece of dream poetry and ranks high as a supernatural poem. The atmosphere of strangeness and mystery has been effectively and skillfully created in the very opening lines. What follows is a vivid and sensuous description of walls and towers, gardens and hills, and forests and “sunny spots of greenery”. A far-off feeling and a sense of mystery characterize the following And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far Ancestral voices prophesying war. It is vain to search for a logical connection between all this and the vision of a damsel with a dulcimer that follows. But it would be ungrateful to find fault with the latter portion with its marvelous poetry. This portion is characterized by an appeal to the senses, a rich intensity of emotion, and a romantic ardor—a product of pure inspiration. The poem is, the short, a delightful amalgam of imagination, emotion, mystery, sensuousness, romantic description, sweet melody and exquisite words.

The Ancient Mariner:

      Then Coleridge joined with Wordsworth in the production of Lyrical Ballads, it was understood that he was to try to give supernatural subject a human reality. This he did in his masterpiece, The Ancient Mariner. The story of how a sailor stopped a man going to a wedding and told him of his strange adventures in the equatorial and Antarctic seas is certainly far enough from ordinary life, and it fills the mind with wonder and awe. At the same time we are made to realize vividly the experiences of the mariner by Coleridge’s power of making us share his emotions of fear and pity, admiration and remorse, and by comparisons with familiar sights and sounds. An example of the former method is found in such a stanza as this.

      Like one, that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows, a frightful friend Doth close behind him tread.

      The incidents in The Ancient Mariner are made easier of acceptance by the reader’s imagination through the medieval suggestions of such a figure as the Hermit, which help to remove the story from the tests of everyday experience; and a touch of the medieval is given also by the use of occasional old-fashioned words like “minstrelsy,” and ‘countree’ by the use of a modification of the old ballad meter. But in spite of its mixture of ancient and modem, of ordinary and extraordinary, the poem has a unified and distinct atmosphere of its own. Its beauty of music and imagery and its quality of feeling are like those of no other poem in literature. It is alone of its kind.

      An eminent critic remarks: “The great chain and power of the poem he in the skill with which the unreal is made to look like the real. Descriptions of natural phenomena are given with such minuteness and detail, and dove-tailed into the imaginative and supernatural parts with such nicety, as to make the whole story look quite probable. The dreadful silence of the far seas; the hot fragment waters with the intolerable blazing sun overhead, and the vast unknown furnish a background of reality on which the emotions of a sensitive human soul may be portrayed with absolute freedom and yet carry conviction with them.

      The moral of the poem—”Ho prayeth well who loveth well, Both man and bird and beast”—grew out of Coleridge’s great love of lower animals. In this poem, he gives a dramatic expression to the conviction that God is on the side of pity and love, and those who shut themselves against these tender emotions are punished by hardness of heart which does not let them pray or attain to wisdom. Nature and all its beautiful creatures of earth, water, and sky become dead to them. All the physical and moral forces of the world become their enemies till their hearts are softened again by pity and remorse.


      Christabel is also a fragment, which seems to have been planned as the story of a pure young girl, who fell under the spell of a sorcerer, in the shape of the woman Geraldine. It is full of a strange melody, and contains many passages of exquisite poetry; but it trembles with a strange, unknown horror, and so suggests the supernatural terrors of the popular hysterical novels, to which we have referred. On this account it is not wholesome reading; though one flies in the face of Swinburne and of other critics by venturing to suggest such a thing.” (W. J. Long).

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