Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Major Works

“Lone manhood's cares, yet waking fondest sighs: Ah! that once more I were a careless child!”

Whatever people say about Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)—morphine addict, less-talented friend of Wordsworth, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—we easily forget the nuance of his verse, the deep emotional outpouring, and the vast imagination. Not to mention his political voice and celebrity.1

Introduction to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria published in 1817. Source: The British Library. Featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Major Works" in the Examined Life Library.
Beginning of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, published in 1817. Learn more. Source: The British Library.

From the French Revolution to the formation of British democracy and the growth of liberalism, poets were a constant voice in the socioeconomic fabric of change.2

What I love about the Romantics—especially Coleridge and Wordsworth who kicked off the movement, is that in order to fulfil their social obligation to raise public consciousness, they turned to seas and rivers and trees and gales. These propounding forces of nature, against which man throws himself and his puny sorrows. And among which, we all feel connection.

Seven Sisters, Eastbourne, UK. Featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Major Works" in the Examined Life Library.
Photo of Seven Sisters, Eastbourne, UK. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Coleridge and Wordsworth were lifelong friends and mutual mentors like Emerson and Walt Whitman, who advanced each other’s understanding of self-expression and poetry through friendship.

Soon after their chance, propitious meeting in 1797, Coleridge moved to Grasmere in the Lake District to be closer to his friend. Together, they enabled each other’s creative output. Soon after, they collectively published Lyrical Ballads, considered the beginning of the Romantic era. Though Coleridge often felt himself inferior to his friend, this collection (to be added later) established both as beloved, prominent poets.

Since all that beat about in Nature’s range,
Or veer or vanish; why shouldst thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning thought that liv’st but in the brain?

From ‘Constancy to an Ideal Object’

The shining piece of constancy and beauty is reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s celebration of common things.

Really, what we find in Coleridge (and Wordsworth) are fundamental questions arrested from philosophy and wrestled into poetry. A few standout examples from his lifetime of work:

A green and silent spot, amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.
The hills are healthy, save that swelling slope,

[…]

My God! It is a melancholy thing
For such a man, who would full fain preserve
His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel
For all his human brethren—O my God!
It weighs upon the heart, that he must think
What uproar and what strife may now be stirring
This way or that way o’er these silent hills—
Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.

From ‘Fears in Solitude’

On the relentlessness of grief, Coleridge delivers a self-aware modern take that echoes the grief narrative of Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis. Didion wrote about the blankness of mind—of eye—that came when she forgot her grief and “then I remembered.”

It reminds me of these lines:

A grief without pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
in word, or sign or tear—
O Lady! in this wan and heartless mood,
To other thoughts by yonder throstle woo’d,
All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze—and with how blank an eye!

From ‘Dejection: An Ode’

A look to the sky, to a morning star, to a lake or flowing river—and the feelings that ensued when this gaze taken—were primary means of metaphor for Coleridge. A means to communicate the deeply philosophical, political insight and compunction.

‘Sonnet to a River Otter’

Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy, and what mournful hours, since last
I skimmed the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that veined with various dyes,
Gleamed through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless child!

Coleridge recognizes the limitations of the nostalgia of childhood: that as an adult we cannot hold it, keep it, or be it.

And on life itself, Coleridge gives us this rounded summation.

‘What Is Life’
Resembles life what once was held of Light,
Too ample in itself for human sight?
An absolute Self—an element ungrounded—
All, that we see, all colours of all shade
By encroach of darkness made?—
Is very life by consciousness unbounded?
And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath,
A war-embrace of wrestling Life and Death?

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” 1814, by American painter Washington Allston. Learn more.

Poetry is often like one of Coleridge’s dark forests. A place of befitting reward if entered with a torch and map. Or at least cues and hints (for a guide, look here). Poetry delivers us the situation of dreams, wrote Gaston Bachelard. Those who slip their meaning to me, the reader, through the metaphor of nature, I forever appreciate.

“My thoughts drift by like moving clouds,” wrote Alan Lightman in his praise of a lengthy upturned gaze. Tiergarten Park, Berlin. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Ye clouds! that far above me float and pause/Whose pathless march no mortal may control…” On the eve of the French Revolution, under a fear of a continental invasion, imagine what it must have been like to read these words. To gaze on this magic beneath your eye and hold both impassible clouds and a possible revolution in one.