Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772-July 25, 1834) was a poet, philosopher, and romantic visionary, an inescapable presence in early 19th-century England. John Stuart Mill coupled him with Jeremy Bentham (another man often claimed as a Unitarian) as “the two great seminal minds of England of their age.”
Samuel was the youngest of 13 children of an Anglican clergyman in Ottery St Mary, a Devonshire village. His father died when he was just short of nine years old and he was placed in Christ’s Hospital, a London residential school for orphans. He read voraciously, and while still at school received a flogging for declaring himself a disciple of Voltaire. This was, however, only one of the multitudinous ideas tumbling through his mind. When he went to Cambridge University in 1791 he still intended to fulfil the family’s expectation that he would enter the Anglican ministry.
Cambridge at that time was in ferment, arising from the wave of idealism generated in the early days of the French Revolution. Coleridge threw himself enthusiastically into this radical upsurge, which was as impatient with the status quo in religion as it was in politics. A leading figure in this radicalism was William Frend, a Fellow of Coleridge’s own college, who had come out openly as a Unitarian as well as opposing the war against republican France. When Frend was tried before the university Senate, Coleridge led a group of undergraduates who protested noisily during the trial. After Frend was banished from the university, Coleridge remained in touch with him. Frend’s influence combined with his own independent thinking in moving him towards Unitarianism.
Academic studies and political protest were not Coleridge’s only activities at Cambridge. He gave himself over to drunkenness, debt and debauchery, the consequences of which caused him to flee from the university in the fall of 1793. After gambling his last financial resources on a sweepstake ticket and losing, he fought off a temptation to suicide and enlisted under an assumed name in a cavalry regiment. Five months later, when his family became aware of what had happened, they purchased his discharge (which was officially listed as on grounds of “insanity”).
Coleridge remained at Cambridge only for the remainder of that academic year and the first term of the following one. In the meantime he had, together with his new friend and fellow-poet Robert Southey, evolved the idea of Pantisocracy, a Utopian model community to be established in America, close to where Joseph Priestley had taken up residence following his emigration. Despite much effort, there was little support and no money to implement this idea, and it gradually faded. By the end of 1794 Coleridge was in London pondering his future; when Southey went in search of him he finally discovered him together with his friend Charles Lamb in a Unitarian chapel, seeking divine guidance.
Coleridge’s religious outlook at this point in his life was expressed in a long poem characteristically entitled Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem, which he began writing on Christmas Eve. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley, and in turn of David Hartley (who gave Priestley much of his psychology), is evident in these “musings”:
‘Tis the sublime of man
Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!
This fraternises man, this constitutes
Our charities and bearings. But ’tis God
Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .
Hartley had promoted the view of God as ‘All in all’, but Coleridge was also indebted to the earlier Cambridge Platonists, in whose writings he had immersed himself. However, the poem does not long remain at this level, but proceeds to dwell upon the horrors of war and social injustice. During his Unitarian period, which had now unmistakably begun, there was a strong political flavor to his religious thinking. His support for the ideals of the French Revolution and opposition to the war with France in which Britain was by now engaged resulted in his being shadowed at one point by a government spy. As he began to preach for Unitarian congregations, he noted that “my sermons spread a sort of sanctity over my sedition.”
For the next few years, Coleridge lived in the west of England, first in Bristol and then in the village of Nether Stowey. In 1795 he married Sara Fricker, who had been a fellow-enthusiast for the Pantisocracy venture. In addition to writing and lecturing, he preached to at least six different Unitarian congregations, on a number of occasions to some of them. He usually marked his defiance of ecclesiastical convention by appearing in a blue coat and white waistcoat rather than the usual preacher’s black. In later life, when he had left his Unitarianism far behind him, it was noted that he dressed like a minister and was sometimes mistaken for one; he no longer had a pulpit, but continued to address his hearers in long monologues. On one celebrated occasion he said to Charles Lamb: “I think you never heard me preach”, to which Lamb could not resist retorting: “I never heard you do anything else.”
Only one of Coleridge’s sermons is extant, preached to the Nottingham Unitarians in 1796. Taking as his text 1 Peter 2:21, he claimed that religious insights came naturally to those who were in a state of nature, but in the more artifical world of cities, where there was no direct experience of the natural world, revelation became necessary. He pictured Jesus as the agent of such a revelation, who not only taught those around him the true nature of God as his Father and their Father, but was also a radical visionary and reformer. He was not to be worshipped. The true way of following him lay in heeding his teaching and following his example, particularly in a primary emphasis upon love.
Coleridge’s career as an active Unitarian culminated in 1798, when he decided to enter the ministry. This was a fairly informal procedure in that time and place, and he was soon invited to become the candidate for the vacant pulpit at Shrewsbury. His first Sunday there made a very positive impression, particularly upon the youthful William Hazlitt, whose father was minister of a neighbouring Unitarian congregation. “I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres”, he wrote. But days later Coleridge received a letter from another Unitarian, Josiah Wedgwood, who was impressed not only by his promise but also by the support he had given to his unstable son Tom. Wedgwood, whose flourishing pottery business had made him a wealthy man* brother Tom. The brothers, whose flourishing pottery business had made them wealthy, offered Coleridge an annuity for an amount equivalent to the salary and benefits he would have received as minister at Shrewsbury, with no strings attached. Coleridge lost little time in accepting this magnanimous offer.
Within months Coleridge had completed the poetic masterpiece he had begun the previous year, The Ancient Mariner, and started work on his other well-known poems Christabel and Kubla Khan. Later in the year he collaborated with William Wordsworth, with whom he had worked since 1797, in the publication of The Lyrical Ballads, a landmark in the evolution of English poetry. Then he made the momentous decision to spend time in Germany, and after immersing himself intensively in learning the language, spent the spring at the University of Gottingen. He returned to England with a large collection of books expressing the new philosophical and religious thinking in which the German thinkers were pioneering, and which was at that point almost unknown in the English-speaking world.
His own thinking responded rapidly to what he was reading. Disillusioned by the failure of democracy in France and the rise of Napoleon, Coleridge had already abandoned his political radicalism. He was beginning to reconsider his Unitarianism. Priestley’s determinism he had already left behind; now he began to think afresh about the whole theological framework.
His personal psychology was a powerful factor in these changes. The turn of the century marked a turning-point in his life. He had moved to the Lake District to be near Wordsworth, but suffered a severe breakdown in his health. He was subject to recurrent attacks of painful arthritis, which drove him to increasing use of laudanum as a pain-killer. He had been occasionally using this opiate, commonly prescribed at that time, since childhood. Although he continually reproached himself for his weakness of will in not resisting the temptation, it now fastened its hold upon him as an addiction. By the end of an abortive attempt to treat his physical ailments in the warmer climate of Malta and Italy, 1804-06, his dependence upon opium was inescapable and remained with him for the rest of his life.
His time in Malta also marked the definitive end of his Unitarianism. Conscious of his own weakness and his need for support upon which he could depend, he turned not only to the solaces of opium, but to what he understood to be orthodox Christianity—though greatly modified from the religion of his childhood by the influence of the German thinkers. He was now prepared to accept the doctrine of Original Sin, not on the basis of the Genesis story, but on his own personal corroboration of the words of Paul: “the evil that I would not, that I do.” He needed a Saviour. The answer came in a flash of revelation in February 1805: first “No Christ, no God!”; then “No Trinity, no God!”; and at length, “Unitarianism in all its forms is idolatry.”
By this time he was a sick man. Dorothy Wordsworth was horrified by the change in his appearance on his return from Malta. His marriage, rocky almost from the start, broke up completely. So also, a few years later, did his friendship with Wordsworth, though there was later a partial reconciliation. He moved around from place to place, writing and lecturing, until in 1816 he made the momentous decision to place himself under the care of a physician in an attempt to control his addiction. Dr James Gillman took him into his own home in the north London suburb of Highgate, and there he remained, with short intermissions, until his death in 1834. His genius as a poet had deserted him, but it was here that he produced his best-known prose works, including Biographia Literaria, 1817, and Aids to Reflection, 1825. Here too he received a continuing stream of visitors, including many of the prominent personages of the day. To them he held forth interminably upon an extraordinary variety of topics.
In due course his rejection of Unitarianism turned into violent antagonism. The claim, almost universal among Unitarians of that day, that their religion was Christian—indeed, the purest form of Christianity—he mercilessly denounced. “What all the Christian churches of East and West—what Roman Catholics and Protestants believe in common—I call Christianity. The Unitarians and Socinians are not Christians in any proper sense of the word.”
But Coleridge confined his attack to the theological position, and did not condemn its adherents. “I make the greatest difference between ans and isms. I should deal insincerely with you if I said I thought Unitarianism was Christianity”, he wrote, “but God forbid that I should doubt that . . . many . . . Unitarians . . . are very good Christians.” Certainly that was the way he thought of William Ellery Channing, who visited him in 1823. In a letter to Washington Allston, Coleridge said he believed Channing’s character to be “the very rarest in earth” and said, “He has the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.”
Nor did his rejection of Unitarianism lose Coleridge his Unitarian friends and admirers. Henry Crabb Robinson, Samuel Rogers, and Sarah Flower Adams were among his visitors. Charles Lamb remained a close friend, despite frequent exasperation. Ten years after Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson made a pilgrimage to see him. If his recollections of what he had heard during the course of an hour-long non-stop monologue are correct, Coleridge made a point of telling him that he “knew all about Unitarianism perfectly well, because he had once been a Unitarian and knew what quackery it was.” He had already told others that “Unitarianism is the worst of Atheism joined to the worst of Calvinism, like two asses tied tail to tail.”
The eagerness of Channing and Emerson to meet with Coleridge, and the acknowledgment on the part of all the leaders in the New England Transcendentalist movement of their indebtedness to him, illustrates the place he had in later life as the leading interpreter of the transition from eighteenth-century rationalism to nineteenth-century romanticism. This was far from being a repudiation of reason, but rather a call for a recognition of its true nature as a response of the whole being, rather than a narrow form of ratiocination. It expressed itself through intuition and imagination rather than through formal logic. Hoxie Neale Fairchild perceptively observes: “The curve of Coleridge’s thought, indeed, is precisely the curve more tardily followed by Unitarianism in general.”
This curve, however, was a jaggedly erratic one in both cases. Outstanding among those whose personal curve moved in an almost diametrically opposite direction was Joseph Blanco White, the Spanish Catholic priest who moved to England and became a vigorously outspoken anti-Catholic Anglican. At the time of his first visit to Coleridge in 1825 he had in fact been a Unitarian rationalist for the better part of a decade, though he did not come out openly as such and link up with the organized movement until after Coleridge’s death. Their first meeting lasted over eight hours. Unpredictably, it ended in mutual admiration. Blanco White dedicated to Coleridge his sonnet “Night and Death”, which Coleridge in turn hailed as “the finest and most grandly conceived sonnet in our language”.
Coleridge and Blanco White have both been described as instigators of the ‘Broad Church’ movement in the Church of England, which was a liberal force in the middle of the century, with another ex-Unitarian, Frederick Denison Maurice, as one of its leading figures. Within the Unitarian movement itself, James Martineau spoke for many others when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal “sacred guides.”
Recent years have seen a considerable revival in Coleridge studies, facilitated by the first publication of many of his writings in the collected works issued by the Princeton University Press. A disconcertingly disorderly and unsystematic writer, his “musings” have stimulated in many others the same flashes of insight as his voluminous reading aroused in him.
* Struck phrase replaced on 12 Jan 2012. The annuity was jointly from Josiah (1769–1843) and Tom Wedgwood (1771–1805).
Archives on Coleridge can be found at the British Library, the Boston Public Library, the Harvard University libraries, the University of Toronto, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grassmere, and in many other places. The literature on Coleridge is vast. A 700-page selection from his own works will be found in H. J. Jackson, ed., Samuel Taylor Coleridge: the Major Works (1985). The best succinct introduction and assessment is the 17-page article by John Beer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), which also includes an extensive bibliography. A good recent biography is Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (1989) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998). The first volume covers the period in which Coleridge was an avowed Unitarian.
Books and articles that focus specifically on Coleridge’s Unitarian connections include Hoxie Neale Fairchild, Religious Trends in English Poetry, Vol. III, pp. 263-327 (1949); Basil Willey, “Coleridge and Religion” in R. L.Brett, ed., S. T. Coleridge (1971); Stephen M. Weissman, His Brother’s Keeper: A Psychobiography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1989) H. W. Stephenson, “Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Unitarianism,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, Vol.5, part 2 (October 1932); and D. G. Wigmore-Beddoes, “How the Unitarian Movement paid its debt to Anglicanism,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, Vol 13, No.2 (October 1964). Bernard M.G. Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore (1971) deals with Coleridge’s contribution to mainstream 19th-century theology.
Article by Phillip Hewett
Posted December 4, 2004 and updated February 12, 2012