“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 begins one of the most famous poems in the English language. Coleridge attributed this poem to a dream vision that he had when he fell asleep one day after reading a story in which Kubla Khan commanded the building of a new palace. Coleridge claimed that while he slept, he had a vision and he composed —while sleeping—some two or three hundred lines of poetry.
When he woke up , he seized a pen and began writing furiously. But after writing down the first three stanzas of this dream poem—the first three stanzas of the current poem as we know it—he was interrupted by a “person on business from Porlock,” who detained him for an hour.
After this interruption, he was unable to recall the rest of the vision or the lines of poetry he had composed in his opium induced dream. The final stanza of the poem which talks of a vision in which he saw “a damsel with a dulcimer” who played and sang of “Mount Abora” were written after the interruption.
The poem as it we know it today is a mere 54 lines long and haunting and beautiful as it is, it leaves you with a sense that there is much more to be said.
Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born in Ottery St. Mary, England and he was the youngest of 14 children. He studied at Cambridge, but he struggled there, and he dropped out to join the cavalry. He did as poorly as a soldier as he had as a student, and his brothers ended up getting him discharged by reason of insanity.
At Cambridge, Coleridge had struck up an intense friendship with the poet Robert Southey, and the two men devised a plan to move to Pennsylvania and start a utopian community. Marriage was key to this utopia, so when Southey got engaged, Coleridge married the sister of Southey’s fiancée.
Then Southey abandoned his utopian ideal and decided to become a lawyer instead. Coleridge was devastated. He wrote to Southey: “You have left a large void in my heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” He was depressed for a while, but shortly after that, Coleridge struck up a friendship with William Wordsworth and they became close friends.
The two men went for daily walks over the hills, discussing poetry, and together they wrote the book, Lyrical Ballads in 1798 ,which opens with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ends with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.
Between the fall of 1797 and the spring of 1798, a period when he saw Wordsworth daily and smoked a lot of opium, Coleridge wrote his most famous poems: Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, and Frost at Midnight.
He said, “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.”
In addition to being a poet Coleridge was a literary critic and a lecturer of some repute. He was a highly respected thinker and philosopher. But despite all his achievements, Coleridge always seemed to fall just short of his full potential. He was a habitual oversleeper. He broke plans and missed deadlines. He often left his mail unopened in case it contained bad news and he spent half his life he battlling a crippling opium addiction that made him feel worthless and ashamed.
He never got some of his best ideas down on paper, leaving other, more diligent friends to write the poems Coleridge only talked about. He spent years working on a massive book of philosophy, but he never finished it. Coleridge spent most his life trying to bridge the chasm between the inside world and the outside one, the mind and physical reality. He was tremendously passionate. When he fell in love with an idea or a woman, he fell hard.
His marriage was unhappy from the start but he complicated matters for himself by falling in love with Sara Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s sister in law). He tried to stay faithful to his wife and to maintain a friendship with Sara, but it was too difficult and when Sara distanced herself from him, he was heart-broken. He blamed Wordsworth for advising her to keep her distance and they quarreled.
He separated from his wife and spent the rest of his life giving lectures and writing literary criticism. He continued to write poetry as well, but his best years as a poet were behind him. He finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria 1817. It is a volume composed of 23 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism.
He composed some poetry and had many inspirations – a few of them from opium overdose. Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty carrying them through to completion, and he berated himself for his “indolence”. It is unclear whether his growing use of opium (and the brandy in which it was dissolved) was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression.
He published other writings around this time notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Hush (1820), Aids to Reflection (1825), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.