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Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The youngest of twelve children, Coleridge was an imaginative and precocious child. Although his family was poor, he was sent to Cambridge, where he read everything he thought worthwhile and fascinated the other students with eloquent monologues, full of mysticism and radical politics. ("Charles, did you ever hear me preach?" he once asked his friend Lamb. " I never heard you do anything else", Lamb replied.) However, he found university life boring, ran up debts, and recklessly left school in his second year to join His Majesty's Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the name of Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke. The harsh discipline of military life was too much for him; fortunately his brothers and friends rescued him, paid his debts, and had him reinstated in college. But he was not to remain at the university.

In June 1794, Coleridge met Robert Southey, a young poet who had become inspired by the French Revolution. The two made elaborate plans to migrate to America and found a colony based on brotherly love, simple living, and high thinking. But they never reached America. Southey settled in Lisbon; Coleridge, newly married to Sara Fricker and practically destitute, wandered about the English countryside. He started a magazine and wrote a play. The magazine failed within two months; the play was not published.

In 1797 he met Wordsworth; stimulated by his encouragement and their shared plans for Lyrical Ballads, he produced in one year almost all his greatest poetry, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan. At about this time he began taking opium, first for relief from the excruciating pains of neuralgia and other ailments, then compulsively to allay the frustrations of a marriage gone sour (he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, sister of Wordsworth's wife) and recurrent feelings of personal inadequacy. By the age of 30 he was no longer capable of sustained creative effort; at 35 he separated from his wife. The remainder of his life was an agonising struggle against the addictive grip of opium. Nevertheless, in his later years he managed to produce significant works of literary criticism and philosophy and established a reputation as a brilliant lecturer and conversationalist.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
2 March 2002

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