Last year marked the 250th anniversary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s birth. Among the events held in his honor on October 21 was a dramatic graveside recital of his best-loved poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The poem is awash with brilliant lines, none more vital than those describing the cursed artist at its center:
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
The mariner, having shot a lucky albatross, travels to the South Pole only to watch his fellow crewmen die by death’s own hand. Reeling from this loss, he learns a deeper love for all of God’s creatures (even the slimy serpents circling his ship) and returns to land with the help of some possessed corpses. Then he becomes a storyteller. Art in this poem’s world involves translating into speech things gone unspeakably awry. Overshadowing the mariner’s moral lesson—“He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast”—is an atmosphere of disaster that clings to him ever after and gives him power to enthrall unwilling listeners. His failure fascinates.
This otherworldly ballad’s author should be easy to admire. Together with Wordsworth, Coleridge revolutionized the language of poetic expression in English, turning the marble physique of neoclassical verse into something with sinews and blood and the power to tremble violently. As a theologian, he composed tracts that influenced the rise of Broad Church Anglicanism. In philosophy, he planted the seeds of transcendentalism and defined post-Kantian metaphysics with his genius for synthesis (or making “extremes meet”). No shortlist of the greatest literary critics in English history is short enough to omit his name. Every surviving record paints him as a figure of surpassing eloquence and active erudition—nothing less than the oracle of his time. Not bad, surely.
But admiration for Coleridge has always been attenuated by a kind of strange pity. To generations of readers, he has stood as the patron saint of unrealized potential. Not until Orson Welles, I think, would another artist generate so much of global historical significance while somehow, against all odds, making his name synonymous with failure. At least some of the time, Coleridge clearly saw himself as a spectacular disappointment, and people who knew him well were always struck by the disparity between his dazzling best-laid plans and his fragmented output. He himself seemed fragmented, his frail form slowly breaking apart under the strain of so much intelligence rivaled only by debilitating self-doubt.
Coleridge was born in the rural county of Devon, the tenth and final child of an esteemed vicar and a woman whose background remains obscure. Choosing books over outdoor games, he had Robinson Crusoe and other classics under his belt by the age of six. He attended Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school south of Horsham, with other boys who would go on to change English letters. One of these was the essayist Charles Lamb, who remembered little Coleridge 35 years later as a kind of warship that “could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.” Not the kind of ship, in other words, likely to suffer the fate of the ancient mariner’s vessel, devoured by a whirlpool within sight of the coast.
Later on, at Cambridge, finding little to challenge his intellect, Coleridge left sans degree and, with his friend Robert Southey, conceived a fantastic scheme for the betterment of humankind. Inspired by the French Revolution (or at least parts of it), the boys wanted to establish a more perfect community in America that would be governed according to what Coleridge called “pantisocracy,” or the equal rule by all. Much too conveniently, an American real-estate man came along and persuaded Coleridge to establish his idyllic community in Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River, at which point 12 like-minded radicals were dispatched to the site. Coleridge even got engaged to Southey’s fiancée’s sister, Sarah, apparently because he felt it was incumbent on this prototypal community’s founder to be fruitful and multiply. The project, as you may have already guessed, fell through; the engagement, despite Coleridge’s deep misgivings, did not. In this first great folly, we observe the ruling principles of Coleridge’s life: a strong attraction to impossible projects, a desire to change the world, and an extreme susceptibility to guilt.
It seems unlikely that dreamy, bookish Coleridge would have fared well as the architect of a new society, and doubtful whether his ambition in this line was much more than regular youthful precociousness amplified by genius. Regardless, with his pantisocratic sky castle in ruins, the young reformer would divert much of his attention from altering the structure of people’s lives to the arrangement of their words and their souls.
If Coleridge’s neurosis has been called an impediment to his writing, I would argue it gives his poems an embattled humanity.
In 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth. It is thrilling to write that short sentence, since it represents a sea change in world literature. Neither man, for all his burning creativity, could have invented the other. Wordsworth’s poetic genius, like Milton’s, was insuperable; he could absorb anything and make it wholly his own, stamping even nothingness itself with his own likeness. Coleridge’s brilliance, more like Shakespeare’s, was that of a man absorbed by everything, and by language most of all. (Possibly this explains why Wordsworth had little aptitude for literary criticism, whereas Coleridge produced new theories of organic unity and imagination, thereby permanently deepening our relationship with Hamlet and other world treasures.)
None of the other major Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, Byron—lacked for confidence. But if Coleridge’s neurosis has been called an impediment to his writing, I would argue it gives his poems an embattled humanity that his literary peers could not access. Sometimes the specter of failure is almost his friend, “Kubla Khan” being the prime example. In a prefatory paragraph, Coleridge explains that he recently retired to a farmhouse near Porlock to recover from a bout of ill health. There he took “an anodyne” (laudanum, or opium dissolved in alcohol, once prescribed medicinally) and fell asleep for about three hours, composing between 200 and 300 lines of a new poem in his dreams. Things went downhill from there.
On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!
Generations of readers mesmerized by Coleridge’s poem have cursed this uninvited person from Porlock for spoiling it—but this man may never have existed, except as Coleridge’s symbol of the restrictive mortal coil. Like Caliban, the speaker of “Kubla Khan” wakes to a desperate yearning for more dreams and would take his waking slower if he could. For Coleridge, the vision of another world does not resolve, but dissolves—in the clamor of a knock at the door, the bustle of busy companies of men, the pressures of an imminently industrializing society. Nothing born of this increasingly crowded and grubby world can fully contain the bliss that lies behind it.
Smiling its Gioconda smile at frustrated readers, “Kubla Khan” would suggest that failure, far from dampening Coleridge’s most visionary projects, makes them visionary in the first place. The aspiration after unattainable other worlds cannot by definition end otherwise than unsuccessfully, and nothing consolidates one’s belief in the existence of paradise like the agony of having just missed it. In this sense at least, nothing succeeds like failure.
But failure, however noble or aspirational, still hurts. It hurt Coleridge’s relationships, his finances, his sanity. His desire to make good as an artist and intellectual was anything but ironic; he wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best and most prolific thinkers of his era. And the more he labored and thrashed to escape his growing reputation as unreliable, uncommitted, or both, the more deeply he sank into ruin.
By the turn of the century, friends thought he’d sunk as far as one could. Laudanum wasn’t just a literary device for Coleridge; he had been taking it for years to relieve ailments from childhood, and, from around 1801, as rheumatism crept over him, his dependence on the drug intensified. An 1806 trip to Malta intended to help him get clean only made things worse. Eventually, his addiction cost him Wordsworth’s friendship, estranged him from his wife, and, as the poem “Dejection: An Ode” shows, ravaged his peace of mind.
Around the time that Wordsworth and Coleridge were drifting apart, the former wrote a new preface to their joint masterpiece, Lyrical Ballads, in which he ignored Coleridge’s contributions to the book and asserted his particular theory of language and poetry. Coleridge, bristling at the insult and convinced that Wordsworth’s theory had holes, started composing what should have been a short preface of his own to defend himself. It was under these difficult circumstances that Coleridge started writing his longest prose work, the Biographia Literaria, which defines his career and legacy like no other single text.
The Biographia defies categorization. When it ceased to be just an exercise in damage control, Coleridge thought it had morphed into an autobiography; once it had transcended that genre, he set the pattern for generations of critics by not being sure what it was. In the course of 24 chapters, he shares intimate remembrances of things past, converses with philosophers from Aristotle to Kant, expounds his own theory of the poetic faculty, and throws considerable shade at Wordsworth’s. He also promises in chapter 2 to write a real autobiography someday, which, of course, he never did.
Upon its release, the Biographia was polarizing. Almost at once critics debated whether it was a methodical masterpiece or a great pile of loose rags. That debate became more complex when Coleridge’s friend Thomas De Quincey demonstrated that large swaths of the Biographia had been stolen without attribution from the writings of German critic Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. Other thefts from Germanic sources were exposed afterward. Late 20th-century Romanticists litigated this matter to death, using scraps of evidence to construct Coleridge’s process and assign different quantities of time, leisure, and haste to the writing of each chapter to establish whether the theft was a matter of accident or some more endemic wrongdoing. In other words, they tried to determine whether Coleridge was lifting passages from the Germans in a frenzied and careless state, not fully realizing what he did, or whether it was a cool and calculated theft, the work of a man who simply didn’t care about intellectual integrity.
Perhaps these questions seem less important to us now. Zooming out, we see the central problem of the Biographia is that of Coleridge’s larger corpus: how to interpret a voluminous patchwork of triumphs, fragments, stolen snippets, and unrealized plans.
What larger pattern, if any, emerges from such unwieldy, sometimes backfiring effort in so many directions?
If Coleridge knew the answer, he was not forthcoming with it. In 1816, he withdrew to the Highgate home of physician James Gilman, from which he seldom stirred thereafter. Thomas Carlyle, in his Life of John Sterling, tells us that Coleridge “sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle … The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma.” Among those rising spirits was Mary Shelley. Legend has it that Mary, at 8 years old, and still 11 years from giving life to Victor Frankenstein and his creature, hid behind the sofa in her father’s parlor and listened to Coleridge recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—a poem that Victor quotes in the novel. Figuratively speaking, it may be that Coleridge’s silent, icy ocean in “Mariner” is the same vista where Frankenstein, another tale of haunting isolation, begins.
Coleridge died at Highgate in 1834. Was he a cursed artist? Sometimes defiantly, sometimes of necessity, he rode successive crests of disaster through life, stepping from the prow of each scuppered project to the stern of the next, and from the last of these often magnificent wrecks into a kind of immortality that rests not much less on his generational intellect than on any of its fruits. Like the ancient mariner, Coleridge was not made to drown where so many others had done. Not every captain goes down with the ship.