Born on 21 October, 1772, in the Devonshire village of Ottery St. Mary, Samuel Coleridge was the youngest son of the village Vicar, John Coleridge, and his wife Ann. Samuel had nine other siblings―eight brothers and one sister. He was very close to his sister, Ann, and his father. However, his mother lacked maternal qualities and his brothers bullied him as a child.
He had a vivid imagination and a vast appetite for reading. Around the age of seven, Coleridge decided to escape the evil atmosphere at home by running away to spend a cold, uncomfortable night by the river bank after being inspired by the Arabian Nights. While he returned home safely, the experience led to rheumatism, an illness that bothered him for the rest of his life.
Education and Influences:
In 1781, when Coleridge was nine, his father died and the adverse financial circumstances the family found themselves in ended the idyllic village life. Coleridge was packed away to live with his maternal uncle in London to study at the charity school for clergymen's children, Christ Hospital. The school was then run by the enlightened Rev. Boyer to whom Coleridge took to at once, and who encouraged and directed his reading in literature, poetry, and philosophy. At his school, he met Charles Lamb and the two remained life-long friends. The atmosphere at his uncle's was also very congenial, and he often accompanied the man to the local pub. While the regular patrons downed spirits, Coleridge demonstrated an eloquence in keeping up with their conversations. The men were amused that such a young kid joined their discussions, and encouraged him as a prodigy.
It was also during his sojourn at the Christ Hospital that the weaker traits of Coleridge's personality started becoming apparent. He showed himself to be capable of varied interests, but unable to sustain his enthusiasm for very long. At sixteen, he had a short-lived infatuation for a friend's sister, Mary Evans, the sonnets of Bowels, the French Revolution, and developed interests in shoe-making, atheism, medicine, and writing poetry. Only the last interest finally remained.
In 1791, just as he was about to go on to Cambridge, Coleridge's sister died―his brother Luke had passed away the previous year―crushed by these double tragedies, he fell ill again with rheumatism. It was this serious attack that led to the use of pain-killing opiates that eventually became an addiction.
His Cambridge tenure was not a success. Aside from a growing dependence on drugs, he began experimenting with alcohol and women. He finally dropped out of the University to join the army. His inability to ride a horse and his family's timely interference saved him from dying on the battlefield.
Marriage and Career:
At Cambridge, Coleridge had befriended Robert Southey and together they cooked up the radical, half-baked political movement of Pantisocracy. In the course of this venture, Coleridge met Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey's fiancée. It is thought that he was more carried away by his romantic ideas than by any real love for her, but after only a short acquaintance the two got married.
Soon afterwards, Pantisocracy came to an end, Southey chose law over politics, and Coleridge met William Wordsworth and his sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, with whom he fell in love. However, he was already married to Fricker.
After his marriage, Coleridge took on a well-paid job as a tutor, wrote well-received poems, and published a joint volume of poetry, 'Lyrical Ballads', with Wordsworth.
Drug Usage and a Downhill Turn:
After his rich pupil abandoned him, Coleridge took a position as Preacher of Shrewsbury. It didn't last very long; Coleridge was a captivating speaker, but he failed to make his congregation captivating. He quit the job and took off to Germany with Wordsworth, leaving his wife and children behind. His younger son died while he was away, and his delay in returning after the tragedy spoiled relations with his wife.
He lost the will to work for a while, fell ill, and spent some time in the Lake Country with Wordsworth. After recovering, he became a political journalist in London and was quite successful for some time. Then, he went to Malta, where―when he wasn't soaking in the sun and trying to control his drug addiction―he did a former-day representation of James Bond in His Majesty's Secret Service. After he tired of that, he came back and asked his wife for a divorce.
Also around this time, Coleridge completed one of his most acclaimed works, the 'Biographia Literaria', and gave a series of lectures on Shakespeare. His previously warm relationship with Wordsworth cooled, and his drug addiction got overwhelmingly out-of-control. In his effort to control the addiction and recover a sense of control over his life, Coleridge sought refuge in the household of Dr. Gillman. He continued writing and publishing and started attracting more and more positive critical attention.
All his life, his friends came through for him, either by making him an annuity of 150 pounds―as the Wedgwood Brothers did in 1798―so he wouldn't have to trouble himself with earning a living, or by lending him money every time he needed it―like his friend, Poole, did.
Coleridge lived with the Gillmans at Highgate until the end. Living with them had controlled, if not cured, his opium addiction, and enabled him to write. He died on 25 July, 1834.