7 min read

Speedrun: Coleridge

It's been a while since I've done a speedrun post, let's see what happens. The idea is that I set a timer for an hour and see what I can find out about a topic. This time it's Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I'm reading The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes at the moment, an interestingly eccentric book from 1927 which traces imagery in Coleridge's poetry back to specific passages in the vast mass of text he read. Tweet review by David Chapman here, contents page (which was what really sold me on it) here.

It's interesting purely as a study of how ideas combine, but I don't really know much about Coleridge and it would probably help if I did. I know he was a Romantic poet who wrote Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and... some other stuff that I probably haven't read? And also maybe he had some philosophical ideas, or ideas about creativity? That's about all I've got.

So, start with Wikipedia as always. Yep, founder of the Romantic Movement in England along with Wordsworth, who he was friends with. Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, also critical works. "Helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking cultures." Also:

Coleridge coined many familiar words and phrases, including "suspension of disbelief".

Might follow that link if time.

Oh, yeah, opium addiction, I was vaguely aware of that from somewhere. From taking laudanum as a treatment for various mental and physical conditions.

Biography stuff. Born in Devon, son of a vicar, became friends with Charles Lamb at school. Went to Cambridge, then whatever this is happened:

In December 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the 15th (The King's) Light Dragoons using the false name "Silas Tomkyn Comberbache",[13] perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved, Mary Evans, had rejected him. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of "insanity" and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he would never receive a degree from the university.

Later he had this plan with the poet Robert Southey for some commune type society called Pantisocracy, "in the wilderness of Pennsylvania", but this was abandoned. There's a link I could follow later. They got married to sisters Sara and Edith Fricker, in St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol (home of the chaotic pendulum). Marriage with Sara was unhappy and they eventually separated.

A third sister married another poet, Robert Lovell, who also got in on this Pantisocracy thing.

Started publishing poems by himself, Lamb, Southey and others.

1797-8: wrote Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, in Nether Stowey in Somerset... where exactly, maybe it's near somewhere I know... OK, in the Quantocks between Bridgwater and Watchet. Famous 'person from Porlock' incident, which has its own page too. Oh yeah, now I remember, I'm supposed to open the possibles in a new tab as I go.

I guess this answers "what else did he write", I should look them up:

During this period, he also produced his much-praised "conversation poems" This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.

Also a joint volume with Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, "which proved to be the starting point for the English romantic age". New tab. This had Ancient Mariner in it.

Briefly in Shropshire. Then to Germany with the Wordsworths, which is where he got an earful of transcendental idealism. Also literary criticism by Gotthold Lessing who I don't know. Then to a place called Sockburn near Darlington. It has a Sockburn Worm, wonderful. This is referenced in Coleridge's poem Love which was a direct inspiration for Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

OK, 20 minutes in, this seems fine.

Some continuity error in the wikipedia article, which now says he returned to England. This time in the Lake District with the Wordsworths. Difficult houseguest because of his laudanum dependency and general bad health. Wrote Dejection: An Ode.


Coleridge is credited with the first recorded descent of Scafell to Mickledore via Broad Stand, although this may have been more due to his getting lost than a purposeful new route. He coined the term mountaineering.

Travelled to Sicily and Malta. De Quincey says that this is when he "became a full-blown opium addict, using the drug as a substitute for the lost vigour and creativity of his youth. It has been suggested that this reflects De Quincey's own experiences more than Coleridge's." Separated from his wife.

Tried to start another journal which was partly financed by some guy called "Conversation" Sharp, that looks like quite a good rabbit hole to go down. "Although it was often turgid, rambling, and inaccessible to most readers, it ran for 25 issues and was republished in book form a number of times."

Final years. Gave lectures on Shakespeare.

Coleridge's ill-health, opium-addiction problems, and somewhat unstable personality meant that all his lectures were plagued with problems of delays and a general irregularity of quality from one lecture to the next. As a result of these factors, Coleridge often failed to prepare anything but the loosest set of notes for his lectures and regularly entered into extremely long digressions which his audiences found difficult to follow. However, it was the lecture on Hamlet given on 2 January 1812 that was considered the best and has influenced Hamlet studies ever since.

Moved to Highgate in London where he lived with a physician who could treat his addiction. Finished the Biographia Literaria which is 23 chapters of nots on various subjects (probably this is what Lowes was going off?), and wrote "a considerable amount of poetry, of variable quality".

Also worked on something called his "Opus Maximum", "a work which was in part intended as a post-Kantian work of philosophical synthesis".

OK, that's his life, now for a section on his poetry. Singles out Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and also Christabel which sounds vaguely familiar and I guess is the other big one. New tab for that.

"Conversation poems". Set of eight poems.

Might read more later but now for literary criticism section. This could be interesting and unfortunately this section is disjointed and generally poor quality. Some bits of commentary from T.S. Eliot and Hugh Kenner. Then whatever this paragraph is:

In Biographia Literaria and his poetry, symbols are not merely "objective correlatives" to Coleridge, but instruments for making the universe and personal experience intelligible and spiritually covalent. To Coleridge, the "cinque spotted spider," making its way upstream "by fits and starts," [Biographia Literaria] is not merely a comment on the intermittent nature of creativity, imagination, or spiritual progress, but the journey and destination of his life. The spider's five legs represent the central problem that Coleridge lived to resolve, the conflict between Aristotelian logic and Christian philosophy. Two legs of the spider represent the "me-not me" of thesis and antithesis, the idea that a thing cannot be itself and its opposite simultaneously, the basis of the clockwork Newtonian world view that Coleridge rejected. The remaining three legs—exothesis, mesothesis and synthesis or the Holy trinity—represent the idea that things can diverge without being contradictory. Taken together, the five legs—with synthesis in the center, form the Holy Cross of Ramist logic. The cinque-spotted spider is Coleridge's emblem of holism, the quest and substance of Coleridge's thought and spiritual life.

Quoting the whole lot because I'm interested in this spider imagery. Also why does it have five legs??

Some stuff on religious beliefs. He wrote some sermon and such.

Political thinking. Radical early in life, conservative later, this section is not very interesting.

OK we're through, 20 minutes left, what to read next? Christabel page I think.

Long narrative ballad, unfinished, synopsis is kind of weird, actually I'd be better off just reading it later rather than reading about it.

Fine I'll read about Pantisocracy instead. Was first going to be in Pennsylvania."By 1795 Southey had doubts about the viability of this and proposed moving the project to Wales. The two men were unable to agree on the location, causing the project to collapse."

Classic utopian commune:

The Pantisocrats believed that contemporary society and politics were responsible for cultures of servitude and oppression.[3] Having abandoned these corrupting influences along with personal property for a fresh start in the wilderness, the Pantisocrats hoped that men might be governed by the “dictates of rational benevolence.”

"Pantisocracy" = government by all, also "Aspheterism" = general ownership of property.

Few regulations would be necessary to govern the colony and decisions would be made so as to avoid one man having more power than another. Coleridge envisioned Pantisocracy as a way to minimize the greed among men.[5] Additionally, Coleridge and Southey hoped to enjoy a more relaxing existence than was possible in England, and expected that each member of the community would have to work just two to three hours per day to sustain the colony.

Pennsylvania idea failed from lack of money or practical skills. Then Southey had the Wales plan but Coleridge thought it was too watered down and they dropped it.

Hm, what other tabs do I have open? "Suspension of disbelief". From Biographia Literaria.

if an author could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a story with implausible elements, the reader would willingly suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative

"Opus Maximum". Set of philosophical manuscripts.

Nice quote from a letter at the time:

my Thought are like Surinam toads--as they crawl on, little Toads vegetate out from back & side, grow quickly, & draw off the attention from the mother Toad

Some schematic version of the argument from a book by Nicholas Reid, Coleridge, Form and Symbol. Something to do with Schelling on the will, also the Holy Trinity, idk.

Oh yeah, Lyrical Ballads, his collaboration with Wordsworth, that is probably important.

The immediate effect on critics was modest, but it became and remains a landmark, changing the course of English literature and poetry.

Most poems by Wordsworth, four by Coleridge including Ancient Mariner.

Wordsworth and Coleridge set out to overturn what they considered the priggish, learned, and highly sculpted forms of 18th-century English poetry and to make poetry accessible to the average person via verse written in common, everyday language. These two major poets emphasise the vitality of the living voice used by the poor to express their reality

Wordsworth poems include the Tintern Abbey one and... a lot of things I don't know.

Oh then there was a second volume, all Wordsworth, I do recognise some of those.

Four minutes left, gone through most of my tabs. I'd like to know more about his literary criticism which Wikipedia was crap for. Guess I can at least google "coleridge literary criticism". Maybe this is promising? idk. I should find Eliot's criticism too.

Just opening tab now but nothing is obviously especially good.

Ding! Done.

That went OK. I still remember how to do this. Maybe I should have left Wikipedia earlier, it's great for basic biographical timelines but often fails on history-of-ideas stuff.

Now I will read about the Sockburn Worm.