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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834
(bio by Bill Gilson)
Critical appraisals of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's life's work usually include the
qualification that he failed to live up to his potential. The origins of this
notion probably lie as much with Coleridge himself as with his readers: from his
earliest years as a writer he repeatedly coupled forecasts of grand achievements
with reminders of what he called his "constitutional indolence." Coleridge was
one of the most gifted and learned men of his time, and, while it is true that
he never produced the philosophical magnum opus that he repeatedly promised, the
sheer volume, depth, and wide-rangingness of his work hardly qualify him as a
failure. Born the son of a school headmaster, Coleridge was by his own account
an odd boy--temperamental, bad at sports, a voracious reader. He went to
Cambridge, where for about a year he did well, but then he left suddenly to
enlist in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. His
family bought him out of that mistake. During a period of enthusiasm for
"pantisocracy"--a scheme involving a projected, but never realized, utopian
settlement on the Susquehanna River in America--Coleridge married; though this
union resulted in four children, it was essentially a failure, and for most of
their lives Coleridge and his wife lived apart. In 1796 he published Poems on
Various Subjects, and two years later, when he was 27, he and William Wordsworth
together brought out Lyrical Ballads. Sometime during his late 20's Coleridge
began using opium. Plagued even as a young man by a variety of ailments, he at
first found in the drug a relief from pain, but the resulting addiction became a
curse that he struggled against for the rest of his days. Coleridge never
really solved the problem of earning a living. He spent a number of years in
the Lake District, largely because of his good friend Wordsworth; he lived in
the southwest of England; he worked for two years for the English government in
Malta; he worked as a journalist in London; he wrote plays, poetry, philosophy,
literary criticism, political analysis, theology and he made translations; but
almost everywhere he lived and in spite of how much he wrote, he again and again
had to draw on the generosity of friends in order to make ends meet. At 44, in
declining health and loosing the fight against opium, he went to live at the
home of Dr. James Gilman of Highgate; under Gilman's care he passed the last
eighteen years of his life in relative security. Always a great talker,
renowned for his long, amazingly learned monologues, Coleridge in his final
years attracted numerous young disciples, who treked to Highgate to listen to
him. "Work without Hope" was first published in 1828 in the magazine, Bijou.