An introduction to the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The very name Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to reverberate like some mysterious timpani. Those magical titles of his vibrate and echo over an infinite distance: Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Frost at Midnight … Or for that matter the notorious Person on Business from Porlock. Almost unnecessary, one might think, to turn back to the poems themselves at all (do they still do so in schools?). Those proverbial titles seem to hold all the poetry.

So it easy to forget how strange, how captivating, how haunted Coleridge's actual poems are. Why is it, for example, that so many of them are set at night? Why do their outer landscapes always dissolve into inner dream worlds? Why are they so full of guilt? And yet why are they also so often suffused with beautiful, healing, glimmering moonlight?

One answer to all these questions (especially popular among recent film-makers) has always been drug addiction. Step forward, Coleridge the lyrical smackhead. Coleridge's poems are explained away as forms of drug-induced hallucinations. It is certainly true that Coleridge began taking opium as a schoolboy in London, experimented with it throughout his 20s in the West Country and Germany, and was seriously addicted by the time he settled in the Lake District in 1801 aged 29.

Five poems in this selection have a sufficiently bewildering range of traumatic subject matter to be classed (mistakenly) as psychotic. In clinical notes they might be described as follows: the sexual fantasies of a Mongol warlord; the hallucinations of a paranoid sailor; the hysteria of a young woman assaulted by a lesbian demon; and the masochistic mutterings of a suicidally depressed lover. They end with the first ever – and truly terrifying – poem of drug withdrawal, The Pains of Sleep, dated 1803.

It is also true that Coleridge, like many addicts, was incapable of domestic stability. He abandoned his wife and three children in 1804 and travelled restlessly for some 12 years to Malta, Sicily, Italy, London, Leicestershire, the Lakes once more, then back to London again, finally washing up in 1816 on Highgate Hill – in the attic room of a kindly physician, Dr James Gillman. The last four poems in the selection, all disturbingly autobiographical, were written at Highgate. You can still walk under his colonnade of lime trees outside No 3 The Grove, and look up at his top-floor window.

But opium is a feeble explanation of Coleridge's genius. Born in Ottery St Mary, Devon in 1772, the son of a doting clergyman who died when Coleridge was only nine, he grew up as a lonely, intellectually precocious and astonishingly talkative child. Coleridge was quickly thrown out of both university and the army ("Discharged, insane"), made an unhappy marriage, and failed to establish promising careers in either in journalism or the church. Instead he met William and Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797, and became a poet.

Coleridge's subsequent career was marked by intellectual brilliance, financial chaos and painful emotional dependence on the Wordsworth household (or later versions of it). That household included Wordsworth's entrancing sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, with whom Coleridge fell desperately and unrequitedly in love. This part of his story is still little known, even to the film-makers. Sara is the secret subject of Dejection – but also of dozens of his later poems, including the one written 30 years later when he was 61, Love's Apparition. This emotional dependence, and the extreme ideas of being bewitched, possessed, enchanted, outcast, damned or redeemed which it involved, were far more significant for his poetry than any drug dependence.

Like all the Romantics, Coleridge was interested in exploring such extreme states of mind and feeling, "the dark groundwork of our nature" as he called them. But he was unusual in that he combined this with a lifelong fascination with philosophy, psychology and the physical sciences (especially chemistry, through his great friend Humphry Davy). These gave extraordinary range, authority and depth to all his writing. In a memorable snub to the philosopher Godwin (an early proponent of the Two Cultures), Coleridge announced: "the activity of science being necessarily performed with the passion of hope, it is poetical". He was never sentimental in his poems, though frequently so in both his life and his letters. He proved himself a heroic weeper and moaner on many occasions. But he was also very funny and self-mocking; and, one should add, immensely lovable.

Coleridge was fascinated by the way the imagination works. He distinguished it from what he called superficial "fancy", and described it in a wonderful phrase as "the esemplastic or shaping power". He invented the influential notion of the "willing suspension of disbelief". He cultivated the impression that his poetry was uncontrolled and spontaneous ("a waking dream"), but in fact his astonishing notebooks show that it was brilliantly crafted and structured. There are at least two separate versions of Kubla Khan, three of The Ancient Mariner, and perhaps five of Dejection. It is not known how many versions of Christabel he attempted, and left unfinished.

Coleridge defined poetry not as an uncontrolled hallucination, but as an act of supreme attention. He wrote this superb definition in a letter of July 1802. "A great poet … must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child."

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