Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was one of the most influential poets and critics of the 19th century. Considered one of the founders of the Romantic movement in England, he is best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. He also wrote a voluminous amount of literary criticism and philosophy that still resonates in contemporary discussions of the imagination. Most of Coleridge’s major poems and prose writings wrestle with the poetic imagination and with the poet’s ability to create independent states of reality. The nature of poetic genius—and more specifically the way in which this faculty transcends both literary convention and the laws of time and space—becomes the central theme of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. It is also the dominant concern of Coleridge’s important critical work, the Biographia Literaria.
Coleridge was born in Devon in 1772 into a large family. His early life was marked by loss; his father died in 1781, and Coleridge was sent away to study at Christ’s Hospital School in London. Here he developed a lifelong appetite for reading and for philosophy in particular. He entered Cambridge but never took a degree. Coleridge came of age in the turbulent years surrounding the French Revolution, and the volatile sociopolitical climate of the late 18th century is reflected in his life: He dropped out of Cambridge, enlisted in the dragoons, made an early and unhappy marriage, and eventually aborted a fantastic dream for a utopian community in the United States. Coleridge struggled with illness, poverty, and instability through most of his adult life.
It was not until 1798 and the publication of Lyrical Ballads that Coleridge really came into his voice as a poet. This joint collection of poems by him and his close friend William Wordsworth was a seminal text for the Romantic movement. Although it was not especially well received, in retrospect we can see in it the seeds of a new poetic vision that views the human imagination and its intersection with nature as the fertile nexus for a poetry that can release humanity from the restraints of rational thinking, including the conventional boundaries of time. Coleridge’s output steadily diminished over the years as he struggled with poor health and opium addiction. His final years in Highgate, outside London, were relatively peaceful; he enjoyed there the status of a wise seer as he received visits from the leading poets and thinkers of his day.
Two poems invite special consideration of Coleridge’s poetic concern with the nature of time. In Kubla Khan, published in 1816, the poet conjures a remarkably sensual and otherworldly landscape situated in a remote but not strictly historical past. Kubla Khan has ordered the construction of a “pleasure dome” by the sacred river Alf, and the poem then paints a remarkably detailed and mysterious vision of gardens, river, and sea that suggests the poet’s penetration of an alternate reality, one that suspends time. Coleridge stated that he composed the poem while he slept through an opium-induced dream. Upon waking he simply wrote down what he remembered of it before being interrupted by a visitor. Whether true, embellished, or completely invented, both the poem and its purported composition express Coleridge’s abiding belief that the poet’s imagination had extraordinary creative power to stretch our understanding and experience of time.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner we see Coleridge using a ballad style to explore the nature of guilt, redemption, and spiritual love, but this long poem also challenges our conception of time. A sailor, or mariner, embarks on a long voyage that takes him with his fellow mariners to the South Pole. The mariner inexplicably shoots an albatross whose earlier appearance had freed the ship from dangerous ice. Wearing the albatross as sign of his guilt, the mariner endures a series of symbolic experiences that culminate in his release from abject desolation and his embrace of a restored sense of the sacred beauty of creation. Coleridge subtly contrasts the experience of time-based reality with the supernatural reality of the mariner’s voyage. The result is one of the most symbolically complex poems in English literature, one that continues to compel critical questions about human perception of experience and time.
See also Alighieri, Dante; Chaucer, Geoffrey; Eliot, T. S.; Novels, Time in; Poetry; Shakespeare’s Sonnets; Woolf, Virginia
Grant, A. (1972). A preface to Coleridge. New York: Scribner.
Hill, J. S. (1984). A Coleridge companion: An introduction to the major poems and the Biographia Literaria. New York: Macmillan.