Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet and critic who was closely associated with the Romantic Movement. He was instrumental in creating the poems now referred to as Lyrical Ballads. A close friend of William Wordsworth, Coleridge is regarded as an innovative thinker whose work covered poetry and essays on philosophy, politics, society and language.

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    Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biography

    Born on 21 October 1772 in Devonshire, England, Coleridge was the tenth child born to his parents, Ann Bowdon Coleridge and John Coleridge. His father was the vicar of Ottery Saint Mary and a schoolteacher who died in 1782. Following the early death of his father, Coleridge was sent to the grammar school Christ’s Hospital for further schooling in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and English composition. It was here, under the tutelage of Reverend James Bowyer, that Coleridge began to form the basis of his unique approach to poetry.

    As his father had wanted him to become a member of the clergy, when Coleridge entered the University of Cambridge in 1791, he initially planned on a future in the Church of England. This focus soon shifted as he discovered the work of William Frend, a controversial Unitarian. While he wrote some poetry during this time, it is the merging of the political with the poetic that had a longer-lasting impact on his work. Despite developing a philosophy of communitarianism named Pantisocracy, he left Cambridge without a degree in 1794.

    Moving to Bristol after marrying Sara Fricker in 1795, Coleridge published his first volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects (1796). Having befriended William Wordsworth in 1795, Coleridge’s work began to show the ‘conversational tone that would become a defining aspect of his work. The development of this style can be seen in poems like The Eolian Harp (1795). During this time, he also published a Liberal political periodical, The Watchmen (1976). With only ten editions from 1 March to 13 May 1796, the publication was not a success despite Coleridge’s efforts.

    A collaboration with his friend Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems, was published in 1798. Despite only achieving modest critical success, this volume marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement. Although Coleridge contributed only four poems to the volume, these included Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which is now regarded as a classic of the Western Canon. Coleridge and Wordsworth aimed to change what constituted poetry by using more everyday language. The now-famous prologue sums up their approach.

    Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title (Lyrical Ballads, 1798).1

    The Romantic Movement was largely a reaction against the logic, order, and structure of the preceding era of the Enlightenment. Other famous authors and poets from the Romantic Movement include William Blake (1757–1827) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). This movement does not include Mills and Boon novels or the works of Dame Barbara Cartland.

    Coleridge and Wordsworth briefly moved to Hamburg, where Coleridge learned German and studied the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant, Jakob Boehme, and G. E. Lessing. After returning to England, they continued to work on the publication of the second volume of Lyrical Ballads, which was published in 1800. This volume contains a preface, which describes poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and states that it should be written in the language really used by men’.2

    Having established himself as a poet, Coleridge spent the next two decades lecturing and writing extensively on subjects from philosophy to religion and political theory. Like some of the other Romantic writers, Coleridge became addicted to opium, which led him to struggle financially and with his health throughout his life. Despite these drawbacks, he managed to publish Biographia Literaria (1817), which contained his most famous and far-reaching work in the field of literary criticism. He also published both prose and poetry. Works from this era include Sibylline Leaves (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and Church and State (1830).

    Having achieved fame in his own time, and endured addiction and disease, Coleridge died in London on 25 July 1834. His legacy is considered to be one of the most important influences on modern poetry.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, portrait of Coleridge in a suit looking off to the side, StudySmarterFig. 1 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged 42.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge is most famous for his poetry. His most widely read and studied poem is probably The Rime of The Ancient Mariner (1798). Wordsworth claims that it was inspired by a conversation between himself and Coleridge about George Shelvocke’s A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726). The poem is fundamentally about a Mariner who shoots an albatross and the retribution and revelations that follow.


    The Rime of The Ancient Mariner features themes such as nature and the supernatural. Elements of the supernatural can be seen in the mysterious forces that control the weather, the crew that comes to life after death, and the Mariner who survives certain death to tell his tale.

    Can you identify these themes in the quotes below?

    But why drives on that ship so fast,

    Without wave or wind?

    They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose, Nor spake, nor moved their eyes; It had been strange, even in a dream, To have seen those dead men rise.

    An orphans curse would drag to hell

    A spirit from on high;

    But oh! more horrible than that

    Is the curse in a dead mans eye!

    Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,

    And yet I could not die.

    The theme of nature as an important and central element of life can be seen in the retribution meted out to the Mariner and his crew after he kills the albatross. The Mariner realises that nature is as important as mankind, and this is the learning that he shares with the wedding guest when he tells his tale. It has been said that the poem is allegorical.3

    An allegory is a work of prose or poetry that can be said to have a hidden meaning that is often moral and occasionally political. Aesops Fables (4th century BC) feature very famous Western examples of allegory, but examples in the form of fables exist all over the world. Other modern examples include George Orwells Animal Farm (1945) and Oscar Wildes The Little Prince (1908).


    The poem is a Lyrical Ballad, which merges emotion (lyrical) and storytelling (ballad) with a supernatural twist. It is a dramatic dialogue relayed by a narrator, The Mariner, and two other voices that appear in the fifth section. The narration begins with this introductory stanza, which sets the scene for a journey of realisation.

    The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

    Merrily did we drop

    Below the kirk, below the hill,

    Below the lighthouse top.

    Written in iambic pentameter, most of the 143 stanzas are quatrains. This structure is not set and varies throughout the poem, with some stanzas having up to nine lines. For the regular quatrains, the rhyme scheme is abcb. Again, in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge uses numerous different rhyme schemes, including internal rhyme schemes.

    Can you spot the rhyme scheme in each of the quotes below?

    Why do you think Coleridge used different rhyme schemes?

    What effect does this have?

    It is an ancient Mariner,

    And he stoppeth one of three.

    'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

    Now wherefore stoppst thou me?

    With sloping masts and dipping prow,

    As who pursued with yell and blow

    Still treads the shadow of his foe,

    And forward bends his head,

    The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,

    And southward aye we fled.

    The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared.

    In poetry, an ‘iamb’ is a foot that is made up of two beats, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. ‘Penta means five in Greek. So, Iambic pentameter is a line with ten syllables. The rhythm sounds like this: da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM.

    These syllables can also be long and then short. Shakespearean sonnets are another famous example of iambic pentameter. Lyrical examples in music range from Pink Floyd to Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Criticism

    As well as helping found the Romantic poetry movement, Coleridge was also a prolific literary critic. His works covered the themes of education, social structures, politics, philosophy, and religious matters in publications like Lectures on Politics and Religion (1795), Lay Sermons (1816), and Logic (1981).

    Biographia Literaria, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (1817) is a two-volume autobiography. The work was inspired by the Kantian ideal of imagination informing creation, Wordsworth’s theory of poetry, and the psychological theories of David Hartley. Biographia Literaria is still widely read today and is considered to include some of the most influential writing on poetic theory.

    The greatest book of criticism in English, and one of the most annoying books in any language (Arthur Symons, 1906).4

    Why is Samuel Taylor Coleridge Important to Modern Poetry?

    Coleridge was a key poet in the Romantic Movement, which marked a turn away from the Enlightenment era with its emphasis on logic to a more emotion-based approach. He and Wordsworth were responsible for redefining what poetry could be with their use of everyday language, nature, imagination and the supernatural.

    Outside the world of poetry, Coleridge wrote influential works of criticism on philosophy, religion, politics, and social structures that have had an ongoing impact on thought in these fields.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Key Takeaways

    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a Romantic poet who is most famous for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798).
    • Coleridge and William Wordsworth are considered the founders of the Romantic Movement in poetry, with their collaborative volumes Lyrical Ballads (1798).
    • Outside of poetry, Coleridge wrote works of criticism on subjects ranging from literature to politics, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and religion. These include Biographia Literaria (1817), Lay Sermons (1817), Aids to Reflection (1825), and The Constitution of Church and State (1829).

    • While at Cambridge, Coleridge created his political ideology named Pantisocracy based on communitarian theories. This involved moving to the New World to establish a new society, but the project never actually materialised.

    • Consistent themes in his poetry include the supernatural, imagination, and nature.

    1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834),, 2001.

    2. Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802),, 2001.

    3. Gilbert Cosulich, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: A Seminar Study, The English Journal, 1913.

    4. James Engel, Biographia Literaria, The Cambridge Companion to Coleridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    What did Samuel Taylor Coleridge do for Romanticism?

    Along with his friend, William Wordsworth, he co-founded the Romantic Movement with the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798).

    What is Samuel Taylor Coleridge known for?

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge is most famous for his works of Romantic Movement era poetry. These include Lyrical Ballads such as The Rime of The Ancient Mariner (1798).

    Where did Samuel Taylor Coleridge live?

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in England and also briefly in Germany.

    What is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem?

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem is the Lyrical Ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798).

    What was Samuel Taylor Coleridge addicted to?

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge became addicted to opium after being prescribed laudanum.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems is considered unfinished?

    What other types of works did Samuel Taylor Coleridge write?

    What kind of poem is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) ?


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