Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is born on this day in 1772 in the small town of Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire.
Coleridge’s father died when he was a boy, and young Coleridge was sent off to boarding school in London. He was a lonely student who fell into dissolution and debt after he went to Cambridge in 1791. He fled his debtors and enlisted in the cavalry, which he later abandoned with help from his brothers. When he returned to Cambridge, he met poet Robert Southey. The two launched an ambitious plan to establish a democratic utopia in Pennsylvania. Southey talked Coleridge into marrying the sister of Southey’s fiancée, so they would both have wives to help start the utopia. Though Coleridge did not love the woman, he married her and remained married after Southey abandoned the utopian plan.
In 1795, Coleridge met the poet William Wordsworth. The two became close friends and collaborators, assisted by Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet’s sister. The siblings 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, his health began to suffer, and he began taking large doses of opium to control his rheumatism and other problems. He became addicted to opium, and his creative output waned. In 1810, he broke with Wordsworth, and the two would not reconcile for nearly 20 years.
Coleridge supported himself for a decade with successful lecture series on literature, beginning in 1808. Meanwhile, he single-handedly wrote, edited, and distributed his review, The Friend, for about a year. His 1813 tragedy, Remorse, was well received. Thanks to the help of Dr. James Gillman and his wife, Coleridge began to cut back on his opium use. In 1816, he published the fragmentary poem “Kubla Khan,” written under the influence of opium, circa 1797. In 1817, he published a significant work of criticism, Biographa Literaria, and in 1828 was reconciled with Wordsworth. Coleridge died in 1834.