Garrison Keillor's Writers 'Almanac celebrated today's anniversary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's birth in 1772 with a slight, charming poem that I'd never read before.
While I like Keillor's deciding to show a different side of Coleridge rather than printing an excerpt of a well-known poem such as "Kubla Khan" or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he's off-base in repeating the myth that Coleridge "accomplished little" in his life because of his opium addiction.
During his more than 60 years, Coleridge produced a vast corpus of poetry, criticism and philosophy. He's a main founder of English Romanticism, and stands among the top English poets and critics.
Coleridge is my second favorite Romantic, after John Keats. Co-written with William Wordsworth, Coleridge's "Lyrical Ballads" rank as one as the most influential books of English poetry, opening the literature to the rhythms of everyday speech. "The Rime of the Anicient Mariner" and the unfinished "Kubla Khan," along with other poems, enriched the English language with well-known figures of speech.
His lectures on Shakespeare still command attention, and he invented the primary vocabulary of our thinking about drama and poetry.
While I found it tough reading, Coleridge's"Biographical Literaria" introduced German Romanticism into English intellectual life, and inspired Transcendentalism in America.
While his depression and opium addition weakened his powers, he courageously continued to carry out his work. His large mind conceived a multitude of large projects, a few of which he left unfinished. Despite his shortcomings - he blamed the incompleteness of his brilliant "Kubla Khan" on the visit of a "Man from Porlock" - he built one of the most productive careers in history.
I've always found him an endearing character. As a forlorn, lovesick young man, he enlisted in the Royal Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. After a few months as one of the least effective soldiers ever, his family got him discharged to come back home.
Coleridge figured in the life of Keats, influencing Keats' concept of "negative capability." The older poet also reportedly met Keats twice.
Keats' friend John Hamilton Reynolds in an 1848 letter cites Coleridge's recollection of a meeting between the two poets on Hampstead Heath in 1817, in which Coleridge shook hands with Keats, and reputedly said to a friend afterward "There is death in that hand!" Reynolds points out that at that time, Keats was in perfect health, not yet contracting the tuberculosis that killed him at the age of 25.
Each of them also left an account of a meeting in 1819 on Milford Lane, "Poets' Lane," in which, according to Keats, the two walked together for nearly two miles discussing poetry and metaphysics.
By then, Coleridge was an honored sage. "From the very beginning of his stay in Highgate, a long stream of visitors wended their way up Highgate Hill to see Coleridge and hear his extraordinary talk, a prophet for younger men," Ann Vinali said in the Coleridge Bulletin's 1992-'93 winter issue.
His visitors didn't seem to believe that Coleridge had wasted his talents.