Fleeing his debtors, 21-year-old Samuel Taylor Coleridge enlists in the Light Dragoons, an English cavalry unit, on this day in 1793.
Coleridge had fallen into dissolution and debt when he started college at Cambridge in 1791. Coleridge quickly regretted his impulsive move to join the force, and with the help of his brothers he was able to extract himself from the military and return to Cambridge, where he befriended poet Robert Southey. The two launched an ambitious plan to establish a democratic utopia in Pennsylvania. To further the plan, Coleridge married a woman he did not love, the sister of Southey’s fiancée. When Southey abandoned the plan, Coleridge remained in the ultimately unhappy marriage.
In 1795, Coleridge met the poet William Wordsworth. The two became close friends and collaborators. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy moved near Coleridge in 1797, and the following year Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, which established the Romantic school of poetry. It included Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge’s life began unraveling at the turn of the century. He became estranged from his wife and fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, whose sister married Wordsworth three years later. Meanwhile, he began taking large doses of opium to control his rheumatism and other problems. He became an addict, and his creative output waned. In 1810, he broke with Wordsworth, and the two were not reconciled for nearly 20 years.
Starting in 1808, Coleridge supported himself for a decade with a successful lecture series on literature. Meanwhile, he single-handedly wrote, edited, and distributed his own periodical, The Friend, for about a year. In 1813, his tragedy, Remorse, was well-received. With the help of dedicated friends, Coleridge began to cut back on his opium use. In 1816, he published the fragmentary poem Kubla Kahn, written under the influence of opium some two decades earlier. In 1817, he published a significant work of criticism, Biographa Literaria, and in 1828 was reconciled with Wordsworth. Coleridge died in 1834.