Coleridge was the youngest child of Rev’d John and Anne Coleridge who lived in the vicarage opposite the church in Ottery St Mary, a small market town in East Devon. John was the vicar and also master of the King’s Grammar school. It was clear from a very early age that Coleridge was an unusual child: by the age of three he could read a chapter of the bible and at seven he was reading “the Arabian Nights”; but it was far from an idyllic childhood. He was clever well beyond his years which set him apart from the other children in Ottery. In his own words he became “fretful and timorous and a tell-tale and the schoolboys drove me from play and were always tormenting me hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports but read incessantly.” His father was his preferred companion and he would accompany him on parochial business around Ottery.
When his father died in 1781, Coleridge was approaching nine years of age. His mother felt that there was little hope of educating such a child prodigy in Ottery St Mary, so she sent him to Christ’s Hospital School in London, where he boarded and felt abandoned. It was at Christ’s that he discovered friendship and a gift for effortless, mesmerising oratory.
He won a place at Cambridge, but very soon money troubles drove him out of the university, and briefly into the army. Then, with Robert Southey – a future poet laureate – he devised a radical scheme for the perfect society which he called Pantisocracy. Southey’s connections drew Coleridge to Bristol where he established a reputation for radical political journalism and oratory, eventually attracting the unwelcome attention of the government. In 1795 he married Sarah Fricker and moved to Clevedon on the Somerset coast.
At the end of 1797 Coleridge and Sarah moved, with their 18month old son Hartley, to Nether Stowey. Here he began his long association with Wordsworth and the two years at Stowey 1797-99, were the period during which his most famous poetry was written.
After a spell in Germany, he returned and moved the family to Keswick in the Lake District but illness, opium use and a passionate but celibate involvement with Sarah Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s sister-in-law) undermined his health and in 1804 he left for Malta, to attempt a cure and general restoration.
Returning from Malta, Coleridge was unwilling to resume married life and embarked on a protracted search for a place to live, while at the same time trying to stay in touch with his children and, less frequently, his wife. First stop was with the Wordsworths at Coleorton and later Allen Bank where he published a new, but shortlived, periodical called ‘The Friend’.
Beset still by opium and drinking too heavily, Coleridge was not an easy house guest, and a chance remark caused a rift between Coleridge and Wordsworth for over a year. Although things were patched up in time, they never fully restored their earlier friendship.
Coleridge remained in London and moved in with the Morgan family – friends from his Bristol days – returning to journalism and lecturing. In 1814 he moved with the Morgans to Calne in Wiltshire and entered upon a period of renewed literary activity.
In 1816 he returned to London to try again to come to terms with his opium addiction, consulting a number of eminent physicians before finally becoming the house guest of Dr James and Mrs Anne Gillman in Highgate.The Gillmans’ affection for Coleridge, and their success at managing his health issues, provided an environment secure and comfortable enough for the poet to remain with them for the rest of his days.
The publication of Sibylline Leaves and Biographia Literaria confirmed his celebrity as a leading writer, critic and talker. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ was now republished with additional marginal commentaries, and both ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Christabel’ – formerly Coleridge’s oratorical party-pieces, were published at the insistence of Lord Byron who had been much impressed by them.
The Highgate years offered Coleridge some stability and contentment. He holidayed in Ramsgate, becoming an enthusiastic sea bather, and even undertook in 1828 a nostalgic repeat of his German tour with Wordsworth.
His health, never robust, entered a final decline in the early 1830s and in spite of rallying to some extent in 1833, by the beginning of the following year he was clearly very ill.
Coleridge died at Highgate on 25th July 1834.