Ward's Book of Days.

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JULY 25th  

On this day in history in 1834, died Samuel Coleridge.  

Coleridge was a lyric poet, an Early Romantic, who wrote some of the most memorable lines in English Literature, many of them under the influence of drugs.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on 21st October 1772, at Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, the son of the vicar of Ottery and headmaster of the local grammar school. In 1781, his father died suddenly, and young Coleridge was sent off to Christ's Hospital, London, a grim institution for the education of orphans. He later wrote of his isolation at academy in the poem Frost at Midnight.  

In 1791, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was remembered for his eloquence and capacity for memory. In his third year, burdened by financial problems, and rejected by his lady love, he left for London, and enlisted in the dragoons under a false name. It is probable that, at this time, Coleridge was under the influence of opium, now rated a Class A drug, but then considered a mild form of relaxation. Within two months, Coleridge was tracked down by his brothers, who persuaded the army commander to release Coleridge on the grounds of insanity. After his ignominious release, Coleridge returned to Cambridge.  

At this time, the French Revolution was taking place and, while Coleridge had much sympathy for its ideals, he deplored the violence and turmoil which followed. Coleridge conceived the design of a small society that would organize itself according to the genuine ideals of the Revolution. When introduced to the poet Robert Southey, the two found themselves in total agreement, and planned a ‘pantisocracy’, an egalitarian community, to be formed on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Although this grandiose plan never came to fruition, Coleridge and Southy, and Southy’s companion Wordsworth formed a life long attachment. The three fellow poets became known as the Early Romantic poets.  

When Coleridge left Cambridge in 1795, he married Sara Fricker, daughter of a schoolmistress, while Southy married her sister, Edith. Coleridge did not have a good relationship with his wife. He took up with a lover, and the marriage ended in divorce. His association with Southy cooled, but his relationship with his fellow poet Wordsworth blossomed. Together they entered into one of the most creative phases in English literature.  

Coleridge's faith in the existence of what he called ‘life consciousness’ in all individuals, saved Wordsworth from his periodic fits of depression and enabled him approach his work on the natural environment with a new vigour. Coleridge, meanwhile, developed an informal mode of verse, of a conversational character. Coleridge explored ancient traditions of religion and mythology, his work expressing the view that all traditions have at their core the belief in the unity of God and the immortality of the soul. This premise was this inspiration for Coleridge’s mystic works, although the communication with the divine consciousness was assisted by copious quantities of opiates.  

Coleridge’s best known work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, relates how a sailor commits a sin against life by killing an albatross, and consequently suffers the mental agony of viewing the world as corrupt and lifeless, and is becalmed in his own life unconscious of the movement of time. The mariner redeems himself and becomes ‘a sadder but wiser man’.  

Coleridge’s mysterious fragment, Kubla Khan, was composed in ‘a kind of a reverie’ as a result of an opium trance. The work is noted for its imagery and rhythmic chant, but some critics reject it as meaningless. However, the poem should be read as explanation of man’s inner journey ‘through caverns measureless to man’, seeking for the ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills’, but finding only the ‘lifeless ocean’, in the ‘shadow of the dome of pleasure’.  

In 1834, after years of drug dependency, Coleridge succumbed to a heat attack and died on 25th July 1834, and was buried in Highgate Chapel. Later, he was reburied in St Michael’s Church, Highgate. [St Michael’s Church, South Grove, Highgate, N6 6BJ]

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