Saturday, April 19, 2008


Few great thinkers have been as insecure and deeply troubled as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But, of course, few people of Coleridge’s stature, at least in modern times, have had so many reasons to be troubled. Coleridge was deeply scarred by a difficult upbringing, and the weaknesses that emerged from his plight led understandably to terrible problems as an adult. Coleridge was the youngest of ten children by his father’s second wife. Not all of his siblings lived into adulthood, and by the time Coleridge reached his age of majority he had lost five brothers and his only sister. Coleridge’s father was a clergyman of very modest means and the family seldom had enough for a descent life. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Coleridge’s father died when the boy was only nine. As a result of this untimely death, Coleridge was ripped from the only security that an insecure boy had and he was given a scholarship to the famous boarding school Christ’s Hospital. Coleridge’s experience at boarding school was both the making and breaking of this remarkable man. Christ’s Hospital was a ruthless institution rife with violence and punishments. Such an atmosphere must have been devastating for a youth already stained by insecurity and death. But Coleridge was a naturally talented youth and took quickly to Latin, Greek, philosophy and versifying. Coleridge was deeply fortunate to learn in this atmosphere and Christ’s Hospital surely set him on the path to his eventual achievements. But it was also a deeply lonely place for Coleridge and during his entire nine years of attendance it seems that his mother failed to visit him even once, and visits from his older brothers were few and far between. Coleridge felt abandoned by his mother and even referred to himself as an orphan on more than one occasion.
Given these difficult youthful experience it is not surprising that Coleridge eventually fell into a spiral of debt, marital problems, and opium addiction. His constant problems mad it very difficult for Coleridge to finish most of the major projects that he took on. All his life he desired to create an epic work of poetry but failed to even get it off the ground. Instead, Coleridge counselled Wordsworth on writing the epic work; which he did, assuring his status as one of the great poets of the English language. And yet despite all his shortcomings, Coleridge must be said to be the most accomplished man who never lived up to his potential. Depending on the edition, Coleridge’s collected works run from eight to thirteen volumes, and though some of the works are highly challenging (some even impenetrable), many of them are full remarkable insights as well as great poetry. Coleridge gave several sets of lectures on literature and philosophy which garnered him a fair degree of attention. But much of what he said in these lectures was extempore and the only records we have of them is what others noted. But what I find remarkable in Coleridge is the fact that his failure to create any ordered and reasoned body of work, it is this very failure that makes him interesting. It is the fact that Coleridge’s work darts from place to place and subject to subject that gives him his challenging beauty. Coleridge is never sedate, orderly, or methodical. Instead he dips through the world and touches truth in strange and unlikely snippets. In a post-modern age that eschews meta-narratives of all kinds, Coleridge seems perfect for contemporary readers. He may hold many traditional views but the twists and turns of his thought means that you are unlikely ever to find entirely solid ground on which to rest.

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