Who is Coleridge?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devon in 1772. At the age of eight, on the death of his father, Coleridge was sent as an orphan to Christ’s Hospital School in London.  His precocious talent for language, thinking, oratory and culture was recognised and at the age of 19 he won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University. Inspired by the spirit of the French revolution he radically criticised what he saw as stale and moribund institutions of English society.  Coleridge dropped out of University and walked around Wales in 1794, for the first time engaging seriously with nature in his writing, and this tour confirmed his career as an artist.

He formed a close and detailed creative partnership with William Wordsworth, helping to fashion the philosophy that underpins Wordsworth’s successful and great early poetry (they were spied upon by the Home Office who thought that their poetry composing walks and nature notes were espionage for the French Military) and co-writing some of Wordsworth’s poetry. Coleridge’s own poems Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan take their place amongst the greatest in the English language.

His energy, genius, vision, enthusiasm, talkativeness, physical stamina and disposition for intermittent serious chaotic collapses made him an attractive but difficult collaborator, husband, father and public figure.  He infuriated and delighted family, friends, critics and the reading public. Former friends ended up attacking him bitterly, but he also inspired and returned life-long devoted friendships.

As well as being a brilliant poet, he worked with remarkable success in many areas…

Journalist: Coleridge wrote regular leading articles for a leading London newspaper and is responsible for the first psychological political portraits. Science: he was a friend and collaborator of pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy, who urged Coleridge to lecture on the relationship between arts and science at the Royal Institution. On his second tour of Wales Coleridge traveled with Tom Wedgwood who is credited with making some of the first photographs. Diplomat: Coleridge served in the administration of Malta and wrote a report supplied to Nelson. He wrote widely on the subject of leadership and mentored a younger generation of thinkers and writers. Travel writer: his journals and notebooks of Britain, Germany, Mediterranean and Italy illuminate his travels and thinking, and include one of the first descriptions in English of a christmas tree. Revolutionary and thinker: he inspires and enrages both radicals and the establishment by his learning, courage and articulation of a deep philosophic value system that challenged authority and yet set out the need for strong institutions that supported the potential of our full humanity. He fought for the abolition of slavery. Chaotic opium addict: given opiate medicine when young during a fever he became dependent on opium at a time when its addictive qualities were not recognised.  He came to understand this addiction and wrestled unsuccessfully to detoxify, suffering intense and long periods of illness, collapse and withdrawal. Visionary: During his lifetime Coleridge was continually criticized for announcing magnificent projects but never realizing them; but he outlined, often sporadically, remarkable foundations and he inspired and quietly directed many influential movements that followed him, exploring spirit, faith, community, imagination and social justice.  Many modern Bristish cultural experiences that we might take for granted today have their foundation in Coleridge’s life work. Poet: Rime of the Ancient Mariner :  The turning point at the centre of this great British poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is when, having mindlessly destroyed the Albatross and brought about the death of the ship’s crew, The Mariner is given the ability to bless the sea creatures. What does this deep and haunting poetic moment mean today for us and our relationship to the natural world? Poet:  Kubla Khan:  In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…  What is the function of our aesthetic and creative capacities in the development of society? Coleridge had a vision of human culture in which our full humanity could flourish in individuals and communities, and this inspired campaigners who came after him. Where is that vision held and affirmed today? Our power of imagination: Coleridge articulated a theory of imagination grounded in deep European traditions of thought and practice.  His writing explores a journey that links and draws imagination into excursion, landscape and environment, which then asks questions about community, social justice and the nature of our humanity. Reason and Understanding:  Coleridge famously articulated for the readers of his day the difference between REASON and UNDERSTANDING.  At the same time Iolo Morganwg was promoting similar concepts of Rheswm a Deall in Welsh culture.  How does Welsh language and culture hold and embody this dimension today? What does it mean for modern societies that have forgotten or ignored these distinctions? Power of the fragment:  Coleridge’s personal and professional life was widely known to be chaotic.  He frequently claimed he would complete large scale projects and writings, only to leave brilliant fragments.  What are the small broken fragments of life that have this mysterious power of fresh creation and renewal, despite our destructive and chaotic tendencies? What is the appropriate cultural holding and celebration of them? Critic:  he was the founder of our modern understanding of Shakespeare’s psychological and dramatic greatness. Physical force:  Coleridge had a passionate, robust, physical approach to life, with a joyful appetite for company, exploring landscape and imagining a re-created society.