A young Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Poet and opium addict
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is best known for writing Kubla Khan. But was he under the influence of something when he wrote it? And did he once spy for Britain?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was born at the vicarage at Ottery St Mary.
He was the son of the Rev John Taylor, and it is said that he had a pretty miserable childhood.
But he loved the countryside around Ottery St Mary, and he often walked along the River Otter.
When his father died, Samuel was sent to school in London at the age of 10. This was where he really became an avid reader, and where his interest in writing was born.
He also took an interest in other things too - opium, alcohol and women among them.
Coleridge suffered from ill health
His addiction to opium probably started following an illness in the 1790s, for which he took laudanum.
It's at around this time, too, that he started to get into debt. He joined the army in an attempt to clear his debts, but he was ill-equipped to fight and was no horse rider.
He only succeeded in joining the army after making up a name - Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (he obviously used some poetic licence here).
In the end, his family arranged his discharge and he went to Cambridge, where he met his wife, Sara - and his great friend, William Wordsworth.
Coleridge's famous work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was published in 1797 as part of the Lyrical Ballads poems.
Lyrical Ballads was published with Wordsworth, and so the Romantic movement was born.
Coleridge went to Malta in 1804, where he hoped the warmer climate would cure an illness. While there, it's said he did some spying for Britain.
He returned home two years later, still unwell and still addicted to opium. Barely able to work, he asked Sara for a divorce.
He died of a heart condition in 1834 at the age of 61.
His lasting legacy of course is the poem, Kubla Khan, which talks of Xanadu and the pleasure dome.
Which raises the question: was he under the influence of something at the time? The likelihood is that he may well have been.
It was written in 1798, but wasn't published until some time later. In a preface, Coleridge explained that the poem came to him in a dream while he was under "medication" - probably opium.
A plaque in honour of the poet can be found on the churchyard wall in Ottery St Mary.
last updated: 18/02/2008 at 17:23