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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor

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was born at Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire, of which parish his father was the vicar, on the 21st of October, 1772. An orphan at the age of nine, he was sent to Christ's Hospital, where Charles Lamb was among his contemporaries. Here he made very great progress in classical knowledge, and at an early age plunged deeply into metaphysics. Speaking of himself in the Biographia Literaria (vol. 1, p. 15), he says: "At a very premature age, even before my fifteenth year, I had bewildered myself in metaphysics and in theological controversy. Nothing else pleased me. History and particular facts lost all interest in my mind. Poetry itself, yea, novels and romances, became insipid to me." In 1791 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, but in the second year of his residence he suddenly left the University in a fit of despondency, occasioned, it is said, by unrequited love; and after wandering for a while about the streets of London in extreme pecuniary distress, terminated this adventure by enlisting in the 15th Dragoons, under the assumed name of Comberbatch.

One of the officers, questioning him in a friendly manner, and eliciting his real history, communicated Coleridge's situation to his friends, who forthwith effected his discharge. Coleridge now betook himself to Bristol, where he joined with three other young and clever men, like himself of ardent poetic temperaments, and imbued with strong but vague ideas of universal brotherhood Southey, George Burnet from Oxford, and Lovell, a young Quaker. They formed a scheme for emigrating to the banks of the Susquehanna in North America, to form a social colony, where selfishness was to be proscribed. But money was needed to establish this "pantisocracy," as they termed it, and Coleridge had not enough to furnish him with daily subsistence. Joseph Cottle, a benevolent bookseller at Bristol, finding that he had written enough poems to make up a small volume, offered him thirty guineas for them. The volume was published in 1794, and other literary schemes were projected. In 1795 Coleridge married Miss Sarah Fricker, of Bristol, a sister of the wife of his friend Charles Lloyd. In 1796 he published a volume of poems, the greater number of which had been written at earlier periods, interspersed with some by Charles Lamb; and in 1797 a second edition appeared, with the addition of some poems by Charles Lloyd.

Coleridge was at this period of his life a Unitarian. He says of himself, "I was at that time, and long after, though a Trinitarian (i.e. ad normam Platonis) in philosophy, yet a zealous Unitarian in religion; more accurately, I was a psilanthropist, one of those who believe our Lord to have been the real son of Joseph, and who lay the main stress on the resurrection rather than the crucifixion" (Biog. Lit. 1:168). In 1798 Coleridge visited Germany, and went through a course of German literature. On his return to England he went to live at the Lakes, where Southey and Wordsworth had then settled, the one at Keswick, and the other at Grasmere. The appellation of "Lake-poets" was given to these three writers after the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge now became connected with the Morning Post, and wrote both on politics and literature. From about 1808 to about 1814 he contributed to the Courier. In 1809 he edited the Friend, first published as a periodical at the Lakes. He left the Lakes in 1810, and did not afterwards return to them; his wife and children remained in the house of Southey, and wholly dependent on him. On Coleridge's first arrival in London he resided with Mr. Basil Montagu, and in 1816 he became the guest of Mr. Gillman at Highgate, in whose house he died. The many friendships which Coleridge attracted to himself through Life, the sincerity and constancy of which were abundantly shown, place in a striking light the amiability of his character; his neglect of his family and extreme carelessness respecting the obligations, both personal and pecuniary, which devolved upon him, as strikingly illustrate its weakness.

It was not before the commencement of his residence in London that he formed any very extensive acquaintance with the writings of the later German metaphysicians, by the adoption of whose method and terminology, rather than by any development of a system, in his subsequent publications, he came to be accounted the representative of German metaphysics in England. He published successively, between the years 1817 and 1825, the Lay Sermons, the Biographia Literaria, the bound volume of the Friend, the Constitution of the Church and State according to the Idea of each, and the Aids to Reflection. During most of his life Coleridge was poor and dependent, from careless improvidence. He suffered also from chronic ill health, combined with, and to a certain extent caused by, a habit of using opium. He died July 25, 1834. English Cyclopaedia. Of Coleridge as a poet we do not here speak. As a metaphysical theologian, his influence upon his own age, and especially upon its younger men of genius, was greater than that of any other Englishman. His mental attributes were of a high order, strangely blended, and thoroughly cultivated.

To a subtlety which would have distinguished him in the age of scholasticism, he added a great compass of thought. The devotional and expository writings of the best English divines, such as Hooker, Taylor, Baxter, Leighton, and Wesley, were congenial food for his mystical and religious nature. With his enlarged knowledge he abandoned Unitarianism. and formed for himself a half-complete theology, partly orthodox, partly mystical, and partly (though unconsciously) pantheistic. "It was one of his most cherished schemes his favorite vision in cloudland to compose a work of colossal proportions which should embrace the whole range of mental philosophy taken in its widest meaning, including, of course, theology and religion. He really only wrote a few disconnected fragments of his mighty task. But these fragments have proved of immense suggestiveness to younger intellects," and Coleridgeans may be found now among every class of English divines, from the Broad Church to the highest Puseyites. The condition of the English mind at the time of Coleridge's appearance is to be noted, as accounting for the wonderful influence he gained. "The received philosophy was sensationalism in intelligence and thought, and utilitarianism in morals; and the received theology contented itself with dealing forth, when didactic, the dry husks of a powerless moralism, and, when argumentative, with insisting upon the external evidences of Christianity. Grotius and Paley (whose Moral Philosophy was a text-book at Cambridge) were the oracles on the subject of the Christian evidences.

Arianism and Unitarianism, always found alongside of sensationalism and materialism, had crept like a fog-blight over half the face of British Christianity. In such a state of things, it is easy to understand how the appearance of a teacher like Coleridge would be welcomed. He was the declared enemy of the sensational and utilitarian philosophers. He was reputed to have mastered the German philosophy, to have abstracted from it what was sound and true, and to have attained to a clear vision, from the utmost height of human thought, of the ultimate unity, the perfect and vital harmony, of philosophy and theology, of the revelation of reason and the revelation of God. He professed himself a devout and orthodox Christian believer. Most of all, he impressed and attracted the young men of his time by his noble ideal of thought and purpose, his reverent spirit, his far-seeing, practical wisdom, his critical and intuitive sagacity, his union of deep learning, fine taste, and recluse habits, with philosophic breadth of view and wide human sympathies.

"One main point, perhaps the main point, of Coleridge's Philosophy was the Kantian distinction between the reason and the understanding. Upon this distinction Coleridge grafted his peculiar, and, as we think, unchristian doctrine of the Logos. Many who have not followed Coleridge in the theological doctrine have agreed with him in reference to the metaphysical distinction, according to which the understanding is the logical faculty in man, the reason is the intuitive faculty, which stands face to face with spiritual and essential truth; and the immediate object of which is, as Mr. Morell says, the good, the beautiful, and the true.' The intuitive faculty in man has thus assigned to it an entirely separate sphere, and that the very highest. It dwells in a region apart, elevated above that of the logical understanding, and is quite independent of it. Being thus independent of the understanding, it is independent, so far as the morally good and right is concerned, of revelation also (which must be presented to it through the understanding), except in so far as it may, by its own light and authority, approve and warrant that which revelation brings before it. For reason, understood as above defined, must, whether in matters of taste, criticism, or morals, he the supreme judge, and be a law unto itself.

Thus the scintillations of genius and the light of piety are but different manifestations of the same faculty. How well this accords with Coleridge's supplementary doctrine, that reason is the light in man of the divine Logos, and how naturally it is developed into Maurice's doctrine of the identification of the Word or Son of God, with all men, will be readily seen. How nearly related it is to the modern Pantheism is no less obvious. Coleridge, in a passage of his Table Talk, with which many passages in his writings fully accord, speaks of that higher state, to which Aristotle could never raise himself, but which was natural to Plato, and has been to others' [himself, for instance], in which the understanding is distinctly contemplated, and, as it were, looked down upon from the throne of actual ideas, or living, inborn, essential truths.' He speaks of the spirit's ascending into the empyreon of ideas.' He identifies the reason with the divine-Logos, making him, in this sense, to be the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.' He denies, as many have learned from him to deny, the possibility of a revelation ab extra. He speaks of the Trinity as an idea,' and analyzes this idea' in such a way as to resolve the Tri-unity into what is really no better than a refined, Platonized Sabellianism only not Sabellianism, because not allowed to be conceived under any conditions of time and space. Such are some of the results of Coleridge's peculiar philosophy as applied to solve, or as used to measure and define, the mysteries of being, human and divine" (see Curry, in Methodist Quarterly, Jan. 1854, art. 2; and Rigg, in Methodist Quarterly, April, 1856, art. 1; July, 1856, art. 1). His views of Inspiration, as given in the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, are almost as low as those of the Rationalists. His theory of the atonement seems to exclude almost entirely the idea of substitution, in order to avoid what he calls the "commercial" theory.

The only uniform edition of Coleridge's works is that of Professor Shedd (N. Y. Harpers, 1853, 7 vols. 12mo). Prefixed to it will be found Marsh's admirable Preliminary Essay to the Aids to Reflection, and also an able and genial Introductory Essay by Professor Shedd. The work needs nothing but an index to be complete. Of Gillman's Life of Coleridge (Lond. 1838), two volumes were promised, but only one has appeared. In 1866 appeared Dr. J. H. Green's Spiritual Philosophy, founded on the Teaching of S. T. Coleridge, edited by J. Simon (Lond. 2 vols. 8vo). Critical essays on Coleridge abound in the leading reviews: among those that examine his philosophical theology and its results are papers in the Christian Spectator, 6:617; Princeton Review, 20:144; Bibliotheca Sacra, 4:117; Theological Journal (Lord's), 1:631; Am. Biblical Repository, July, 1849, art. 1; British Quarterly, Jan. 1854, art. 4.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Coleridge, Samuel Taylor'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/c/coleridge-samuel-taylor.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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