Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was once described as the last person to have read everything, so steeped in literature, philosophy, and learning was he. Certainly, he gave us a very useful phrase concerning good fiction: the expression ‘suspension of disbelief’ is a coinage of his, and describes the unofficial contract we all enter into when we read, or watch, fictional narratives. But he also gave us a few other useful words, notably ‘psychosomatic’ and ‘selfless’, and the first recorded use of ‘bisexual’ (although Coleridge used it to mean ‘androgynous’ or ‘containing both sexes’, rather than being attracted to persons of both sexes). In fact, he also led an eventful life including a spell in the Royal Dragoons, joining up under the name ‘Cumberbatch’.
Coleridge’s most famous poem appeared in the important 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, co-written with William Wordsworth. Despite its later significance, the book initially sold badly, and Wordsworth’s celebrated preface (containing the famous ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’ line, to describe poetic composition) didn’t appear until the second edition, in 1800. Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is among the most familiar in all of English literature. Critic William Empson suggested in an article of 1964 (reprinted in Argufying, 1987) that the slave trade informed the poem: although it isn’t mentioned explicitly anywhere in the poem, the themes of maritime expansion and collective guilt which the poem articulates feed directly into the contemporary context of discussion and debate about the slave trade (which was abolished in 1807, nine years after the poem appeared). Although Coleridge later altered his views on the slave trade, he was opposed to it when he wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The idea of killing an albatross bringing bad luck upon the crew of a ship appears to have been invented in the poem, as there is no precedent for it – and the albatross idea was probably Wordsworth’s, not Coleridge’s. Despite their successful working partnership, and friendship, during the years of the Lyrical Ballads, the two poets later became estranged from each other, especially as Wordsworth became more conservative in his later years.
(Right: statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet, Somerset. The albatross hangs round his neck.)
Coleridge’s other most famous poem is ‘Kubla Khan’, composed in 1797 though not published until 1816 (when Lord Byron, of all people, persuaded Coleridge to publish it). The story about the idea for the poem coming to Coleridge in a dream while he was under the influence of opium is true. However, there has been some disagreement over the claim that Coleridge was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ while he was writing the poem (supposedly as he quickly recalled the visions of his opium-induced dream in those first waking moments). Some scholars and poets have suggested that Coleridge invented the person from Porlock as a convenient excuse for writer’s block – he couldn’t finish the poem, so invented a fictional interruption which would surround the poem with a sort of exciting folklore that would, in time, become more famous than the words of the poem itself.
As well as being an influential poet, Coleridge was also a gifted critic. Among his most frequently cited lines is the one in which he opines that the three most perfectly planned plots in the whole of literature are Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
Coleridge also appears to have been the first person to use the word ‘bipolar’, in 1810 – which is appropriate, since some recent critics and commentators believe the poet may have suffered from bipolar disorder.