Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By: Anthony Miller
October 21, 2015


Poet, literary critic, philosopher, inexhaustible talker, and opium-addled polymath, SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (1772–1834) owed the discovery of his dream world to the conjunction of laudanum and libraries. Characterizing himself as a “library cormorant,” he told John Thelwall in a 1796 letter, “I am deep in all out of the way books.” His textual burrowing led to unattributed borrowing, as he roved across literary inspirations in the mode of a DJ amassing a trove of music samples. (Consult John Livingston Lowes’s magisterial excavation of Coleridge’s sources in The Road to Xanadu.) He was besotted by allusions and digressions; he would have made an ideal reader of Finnegans Wake. His “conversational poems” like his masterpiece “Frost at Midnight” provided the voice for Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and the Lyrical Ballads. “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel,” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” reverberated with delirious and demonic grandeur. The poetry prize-winning Cambridge student left university for a fleeting stint in the Royal Dragoons as “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache” (despite his antipathy for horses and authority) and soon after attempted to create a “Pantisocracy” in America. His life of frenzied study and unfinished projects informed poems about the isolation brought on by visions and fragments of arrested, evaporating visions. Venturing from poetry into investigations into the metaphysics of imagination in his Biographia Literaria and Notebooks, he endowed Romanticism with an intellectual authority. Among the words he introduced into the English language was “marginalia” and he explained to readers that imaginative literature required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Dubbed a “sublime somnambulist” and a “damaged archangel,” Coleridge is the forefather to every brainy, shadowy, druggy artist who tried to contemplate the whole world.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dizzy Gillespie, Fran Landesman, Ursula K. LeGuin, Lux Interior, Yoshikazu Ebisu.

READ MORE about members of the Original Romantic Generation (1765-74).


HiLo Heroes, Poetry