Colerdige: the Visionary Poet
Brief but Incredible Career
Like those music stars of the 1960s who went down the tubes or killed themselves by the early 1970s, Coleridge came on the scene in the late 1700s, wrote a handful of brilliant poems and some of the most influential literary criticism in British history, and then broke down completely from drug addiction by 1809.
As we discussed, Coleridge partnered with Wordsworth to write the groundbreaking Lyrical Ballds in 1798. While Wordsworth dealt with rustic life (the natural), Coleridge dealt with dreams and visions (the supernatural). His biggest contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is simply one of the greatest romantic poems, if not one of the top twenty best in British history. When the collection of poems first came out, most audiences and critics thought the poem was a confusing mess. Indeed, the poem is brilliant because it seems to make sense as a narrative while it also seems to defy interpretation at the same time.
Coleridge wrote most of his poems in spells of intense labor. He was never a very disciplined poet, but perhaps in a true romantic vein, he would come up with a poem as if he had gone into a trance.
Coleridge and Drug Addiction.
Because of a childhood illness, Coleridge suffered from terrible back pain into his adult life. The medical prescription at the time was laudanum, which is opium dissolved in alcohol. Basically, morphine with a grain alcohol chaser! He quickly became addicted to the drug. Although he admits that the high would inspire much of is writing, by the early 1800s, he also began to admit that the drug was ruining both his creativity and his life. He took a two year retreat to Malta to try to recover, but while he was gone, his addiction only grew worse, and by the time he returned to England in 1806, he was pretty much physically and mentally destroyed. “Dejection: an Ode,” one of his later poems, expresses the despair of drug addiction.
It will always remain one of the most tantalizing hypothetical questions in British literature: what if Coleridge had been able to produce poetry and prose for the duration of his life instead of the six or seven years before drugs destroyed him? Needless to say, the handful of poems he left behind, combined with his magnum opus, Literary Biography, has made him one of the most central of romantic poets.
Coleridge the Intellectual
Coleridge on the Central Power of the Imagination.
Central to Coleridge’s literary criticism is his romantic concepts concering the Imagination. Like the romantics to follow, Coleridge placed the role of the Imagination in a dominant position. He argued that the Imagination functions like a divine spark that urges one on to create. Further, the Imagination is bound to God’s creative act. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would find romantic inspiration from Coleridge several decades later, the natural world around us is like a big canvas of God’s creation. Essentially, God is a great artist, and when we experience the world around us, His creation inspires the artist to create a representation of it.
But for Coleridge, making a representation of God’s creation is not
- This is a wonderful book written by Dorthy Sayers in the 1920s in which she develops a literary criticism based upon the notion that artists and poets are like co-creators of God’s great and ongoing creation. It is a very interesting approach toward literary interpretation by basing reading and meaning upon Christian theology.
just an act of imitation. Because we have an Imagination that can take in and break up our experience in the world as a means to create a personal expression, we are like co-creators, co-authors, in God’s divine and infinite creative act. Coleridge, therefore, inspires a great deal of the romantic notion that poets and artists are “gifted,” vested with a “vision,” and whose creations turn them into a “genius.”
Entry filed under: WEEK TWO: Romanticism.