On the Poets’ Corner Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth take center stage. Together they launched the “Romantic Period” of English Poetry.
Wordsworth and Coleridge met in August 1795. They were in their early twenties and soon became close friends. Both had been orphaned before they reached their teens. Each was raised by relatives who did not want the responsibility. The lonely childhood of both left deep internal emptiness that was assuaged by closeness to nature. By the time the men met, Coleridge had already written and published poetry and gained some recognition. He was married and had a small son. Wordsworth, unmarried, lived with his sister, Dorothy, to whom he was deeply devoted. Dorothy encouraged Wordsworth to write poetry. She wrote down sentences and fragments of poems he had voiced and urged him to use these in his writing.
Born ten years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in a time of unrest in England, both men were passionate about nature and preserving the pastoral aspect of rural England. Wordsworth was moved by Coleridge’s free-thinking liberalism and became more open and aware of the possibilities of expressing his deepest feelings in his poetry.
From June 1997 until fall 1798 the two young men walked the Quintok Hills in Somerset England internalizing the natural beauty and sharing ideas for poetry. They traded lines and whole verses that later could be found in the poetry of each man. This turned out to be a “Magical Year” that was the beginning of the era of romantic poetry in England.
As a young man, Coleridge used laudanum (from opium) to relieve dysentery. While under the influence of the drug, he had visions that were so vivid he was able to recall, and write the poem Kubla Kahn immediately after he woke up.
He was interrupted while he was writing and by the time he was able to pick up his pen again, the vision had dimmed and he was not able to recall clearly the rest of the dream. He thought he would be able to complete it later but never attempted to add more. It was published and has always been called ‘a fragment’.
Plagued by drugs, Coleridge, left his wife and young son and went to live with Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. The Wordsworths (Dorothy was ever present) and Coleridge were increasingly discontented with the way the beauty of England was being destroyed by encroaching industrial progress.
Together, they decided to leave England and go to Germany. They stayed from September 1798 until July 1799. While at the University of Cottingin, Coleridge became homesick, which led to extended bouts of drinking and opium use. About this time Coleridge got word from his wife that the baby, born just before he left England, had died. They returned to England where they all lived together in the Wordsworth home, Cove Cottage, at Grasmere.
The relationship between Coleridge and the Wordsworths deteriorated. This was spurred by Coleridge’s use of laudanum causing lassitude and lack of poetic accomplishment. They argued bitterly and Coleridge was asked to leave the Wordsworth’s home.
Coleridge’s marriage to Sara was not happy. He lived a nomadic life-style, staying with various friends and acquaintances and seldom spending time with his wife and children. His 39 year marriage was marked by long absences and lack of support. He wandered from place to place, lecturing, teaching philosophy, writing and assembling his earlier poetry for publication. He was frequently ill, and drug ravaged.
In April 1816, Coleridge was accepted as a patient and lodger in the home of Dr. James and Ann Gillman at Highgate. In November 1834, his wife and daughter, Sara, visited him for the last time at Highgate.
His last years were spent re-writing poetry, lecturing on various subjects, including Shakespeare, and stints of teaching. From March to July 1834 he was working on a third edition of Practical Works with the assistance of his son-in-law. On July 25 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died at Highgate at age 61. His wife, their daughter and two of their three sons survived him.
William Wordsworth married a childhood friend in 1802. They had two sons and two daughters. His love child born to Annette Vallon, in France, was never acknowledged publicly. The years between 1778 and1808 were the peak years of his creativity. He died April 23, 1850 at Grasmere. After his death, his widow published the autobiographical poem “To Coleridge” under the name of “The Prelude”.
“THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER” (1798) has been called Coleridge’s greatest poem. Here are the last four verses:
Farewell, farewell! But this I tell
To thee, thou wedding guest!
He prayeth well who loveth well,
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best,
All things both great and small:
For the dear God, who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar.
Is gone, and now the wedding-guest
Turn’d from the bridegroom’s door.
He went, like one that hath been stunn’d
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As an exercise, the poetry group that numbered 16 read the poem aloud with each reading several verses. At the conclusion a lively discussion ensued. The significance of the albatross, the phrase, “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink”, and other parts of the poem stimulated lively discussion in the group that left the meeting inspired by the power of these two romantic poets. [Ed.]
By Margaret Hall Simpson
Find more at: poets.org
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