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.
If you enjoyed these Coleridge facts, check out our William Wordsworth facts and our interesting facts about Sir Walter Scott.
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This may just be my new favorite blog. There’s no experience quite like sailing those haunted seas with Coleridge.
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Reblogged this on Samueldpoetry.
Very interesting information here. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has always been a favourite of mine though the references to slavery are new to me. I’m disturbed that he became in favour of slavery…..
All the best to you.
Reblogged this on Attempts at Self-Autonomy.
He sounds fascinating, and how romantic – “the last person to have read everything”! I am a little jealous of that
Thanks for this… I’ve been enamoured with ST Coleridge forever, but learned something new here — didn’t know he coined the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’.
We aim to please! Thanks for the comment, Helena – much appreciated…
Hi from Argentina. As regards the person from Porlock that interrupts Coleridge’s writing in the poem Kubla Khan, it is also possible that he represents the obligations of the real world interrupting a moment of creative work.
An interesting post. I love Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but unfamiliar with any of Coleridge’s other work. Look forward to reading more of your posts.
Surprising? You weren’t kidding! I love The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!
Thanks! We aim to please!
I always learn so much in your posts. Very interesting how you write about things too. Really cool!
Thanks so much for the lovely comment!
This took me back to my college days, days of yore I might add. As an English Literature major, Coleridge was one of my favorite English poets. Of his works, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan were most engaging. I love the cadence of each, as well as the delicate balance of story telling, though which is in the form of poetry, borders on prose.
I suppose because I absolutely adore writing, I find his work captivating, and never tire of reading and rereading it. Your posts is a bit of fine writing as well, and I appreciate the time you took to visit our site. Shall come back this way often. ~ Ayanna Nahmias
Thanks Ayanna, much appreciated! Glad you liked the post, and I couldn’t agree more about Coleridge. I’ve got a soft spot for ‘Frost at Midnight’ myself…
This morning, I listened to Richard Burton’s excellent reading of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on YouTube. The melodic lines are still resonating in my mind.
I have wanted to read Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist for years. Perhaps Coleridge’s recommendation will provoke me to set aside a few hours for the renowned satire.
I’m going to check out that Richard Burton recording tomorrow. Thanks for the recommendation!
New to your blog. Thank you for the enlightenment. Like returning to a Survey of English Literature course. As an undergrad English major back in the day (1960’s) I could have used more of this kind of stuff. Samuel Taylor’s was not my favorite poetry but sadly today’s students in the States rarely have to give it a glance.
Thanks! That is a shame about Coleridge. I think people are put off by him because his daunting reputation rests on a small handful of poems – Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight – and if you don’t ‘get’ those at the right time, you can miss out on what he’s trying to do. Thanks for the laudatory comment – we’ll try to get a good few more posts up on the site this month.
Many thanks as usual for this insight into Coleridge, IL. I am not too good with poetry, esp. ‘grand’ stuff but I adore finding out about literary giants and their lives. Note to self: look up ‘person from Porlock’ (which is a place I love and nearly made my home).
I can’t bear modern celeb culture and as this is a version of such, but in the past tense, I really cannot understand why I find it all so fascinating.
Can you do a piece on A.E Housman? He is the only poet I can really relate to … well, besides the WW1 poets who I love for their tragedies as much as for their poetry.
Housman is one of my favourite poets, so now you’ve said that I’ll have to put together a piece on the great scholar-poet! Thanks for the comment, too – as ever, much appreciated.
I really enjoyed the facts about Coleridge. One question–when you say that he altered his views on the slave trade, I wondered why and how he would have changed to find slavery acceptable, if indeed that was the change. I love the invention of an interrupting person to end the poem–what a clever and useful trick of verisimilitude.
Hi Laura, thanks for the comment, as ever. This article from the Coleridge Bulletin goes into more detail about Coleridge’s attitudes to the slave trade: I don’t think he ever came to oppose its abolition, but he certainly lost enthusiasm for the cause later in life: http://www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/CB27/CB27%20Sonoi.pdf