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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #18: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For a time there were three poets living on the border of Scotland and England in the modern-day county of Cumbria at the beginning of the 1800’s: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Francis Jeffrey, a Scottish judge and literary critic, was the first to refer to these three poets as the “Lake School” because they lived quite close together in that area known as the “Lake District,” called so because of the many lakes that populate the area. My children gave my wife and me a generous gift to celebrate our anniversary at the Lake District, but unfortunately the pandemic prevented us from going there!

    The three poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey—were, for a time, good friends. Coleridge was a schoolmate of Southey, and in their youth the two actually planned to move together to the northern parts Pennsylvania along the Sesquehanna River. They named their future place “Pantisocracy,” which means “equal government for all.” In the early 1800’s there arose new ideas about government and society, one of which was that all people were equal and should be treated equally. In this proposed utopian society individuals would be free to spend their time in peaceful labor in the fields and have ample time for study and other literary pursuits. Their lives in America would bring together aspects of the working class people with the upper class. It would be an ideal, or perfect, world where these new ideas could proper. Southey and Coleridge had to give up the idea, however, over practical reasons and personal reasons, one of which was that Southey wanted to bring servants to do all the toil and Coleridge thought that such a practice would go against all their bright ideas of a new, democratic society.

    At this time both Coleridge and Southey married sisters: Sarah and Edith Fricker. Their close relationship was short-lived after that, as Coleridge and his wife did not get along and soon separated. Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth grew as his relationship with Southey grew more distant. The two poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth, spent much time together talking about poetry and working together on a book of poems titled Lyrical Ballads. The book was largely Wordsworth’s own work. Most of the poems in it, such as “We Are Seven” and “Lines Written Early in Spring” have a simple, natural style and tell simple, homey stories of country people. These are Wordsworth’s. Coleridge’s poems, however, are quite different. One of them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” is a strange poem about a mariner out at sea who kills an albatross and is punished for it. The poem contains much eerie and bizarre, fantastical imagery, which stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s down-to-earth, pretty descriptions of nature. In one part of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner’s vessel meets up with a ghost ship with a skeleton as part of its crew!

    Another famous poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is titled “Kubla Khan.” This, too, contains wildly fanciful imagery. It is a fragment, like so many of Coleridge’s poems. The poem contains a dream-like description of an eastern king’s city named Xanadu. The king’s name is Kublai Khan. Khan was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China and ruled the Mongul Empire from 1260 to 1294. The following is an excerpt from the “Kubla Khan.”

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

  A stately pleasure-dome decree:

  Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

  Through caverns measureless to man

    Down to a sunless sea.                                             

  So twice five miles of fertile ground

  With walls and towers were girdled round:

  And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

  Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

  And here were forests ancient as the hills,                         

  Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    Many say that Coleridge’s poems were so weird and sometimes unfinished because the poet had problems with drug addiction. In the early 1800’s a drug called opium was commonly prescribed by doctors for all sorts of ailments. It commonly causes weird dreams and a lack of energy. The addictive qualities of opium as well as its strange effects on the mind were not as well known then as now. Coleridge suffered from his addiction for the rest of his life. His drug habit worsened with age and he died in 1834, perhaps partly as a result of his opium habit.

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