Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire in 1772. At the age of 10 he was sent first to Christs Hospital School in London and then to Cambridge, where he never graduated. He was influenced by French revolution ideals.
In 1797 he met the poet William Wordsworth and settled in Somerset and they started a collaboration for the writing of Lyrical Ballads.
Most of his best poetry belongs to these years:
- The Rime of an Ancient Mariner, his masterpiece written in 1798 and the first poem of the collection ‘Lyrical Ballads’ became the Manifesto of English Romanticism movement;
- Christabel was written in 1797 but published in 1816 and it’s unfinished;
- Kubla Khan (unfinished) is a 54-line fragment written in 1798 and published in 1816. It was composed under the influence of opium. Coleridge described this dream-like poem as a psychological curiosity.
In 1799 he joined Wordsworth in the Lake District and he spent a period of solitude in Malta between 1804 and 1806.
Finally he returned to London and he produced Biographia Literaria (1817), a classic text of literary criticism and autobiography.
His own task was to write about extraordinary events in a credible way. He died in 1834.
2. Imagination and fancy
Like Blake and Wordsworth, Coleridge stressed the role of imagination and his critical essays did much to assert the idea of creative power.
He distinguished between ‘primary imagination’ and ‘secondary imagination’.
The first is a fusion of perception and the human individual power to produce images; the second is something similar to a poetic faculty. Imagination is more important than fancy and it’s based on the power of association of material provided and subject to the rational law of judgment.
A practical example is in ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
4. The idea in the real
Coleridge’s contemplation of nature is accompanied by awareness of the presence of the ideal in the real.
However he had a strong christian faith, Coleridge didn’t identify nature with divine in the form of pantheism which Wordsworth adopted. The material world is nothing but the projection of the real world of ideas on the flux of time.
Coleridge used natural images for visionary poems.
5. The Rime of an Old Mariner (1834)
An old Mariner from nowhere meets three wedding guests and stops one of them to tell him a story. The man is fascinated by his glittering eyes and cannot help listening to him. The Mariner starts his tale. The ship he was in was sailing towards the South Pole during a thunderstorm.
Suddenly a seabird, an Albatross, came; he was welcomed by the crew as a sign of good luck. However, the Mariner killed him in a sudden decision and there was no reason for his behavior.
The first punishment he must suffer was when the rest of the crew put a rope with the dead Albatross around his neck. The ship stopped because of an evil spell. The crew was dying of thirst when a ghost ship appeared. It was driven by Death and Life-in-Death, who played advice with the crew’s lives. They all died, but the Mariner survived because he had to expiate his sin.
The Mariner was obsessed with the memory of the dead men. He also saw sea snakes moving around the ship and spirits who looked like hid dead shipmates. The ship reached the Mariner’s native land. There, he found a small boat with a holy hermit in it. As soon as the mariner got into the boat, the ship sank.
The Mariner asked the hermit to hear his confession and finally his soul found peace. But he’s compelled to tell everyone his story and teach other people what he has learnt: all God’s creatures have to be respected and loved.
6. Atmosphere and characters
The atmosphere of the whole poem is charged with irresistible mystery because of the combination of the supernatural and the commonplace, dream-like elements and astonishing visual realism.
The Mariner and his comrades are characters in any dramatic sense. They are more types than human beings and their agonies are universally human.
The Mariner doesn’t speak as a moral agent, he’s passive in guilt and remorse. From his paralysis of conscience the Mariner succeeds in gaining authority.
Coleridge makes him a spectator as well as actor in the drama, so that he can recount even his worst terrors with the calm of lucid retrospection.
7. The Rime and traditional ballads
This poem contains many features of traditional ballads: combination of dialogue and narration, four-line stanza, archaic language, alliterations, repetitions and onomatopoeias, the theme of travel and wandering.
The presence of morals makes The Rime of Ancient Mariner a romantic ballad.