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The Mad, The Melancholic, The Poet - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A didactic enumeration by seventeenth-century British Poet Laureate John Dryden,

Great wits are sure to madness near allied and thin partitions do their bounds divide”

heralds the poetic penchant of the late 18th century, often termed as the Romantic Age, where the muse traversed from the land of “Spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions”, sipped water from banks of the subconscious and unconscious regions of the mind, and gave rise to an image of a Furor Poeticus, which was a blurred region in the domain of poetry. Mental disorders were often mistaken in the Romantic Age, under the garb of the ‘Mad Genius’. The unrestrained imagination on “wings of poesy” infused with wistful melancholy and a sense of alienated subjectivity exposed the minds of the poets on an intimate level, thus making it easier for an intricate study of the mental illness the poets endured.

One of the major poets of the Romantic Age whose mind lay devoured by numerous mental disorders is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan’’, and “Cristabel”, Coleridge is one of England's most beloved literary figures, he was a celebrated critic, philosopher, and theologian. Along with William Wordsworth, Coleridge was one of the spearheads of the Romantic movement. He was a member of the Lake Poets, a group of famed English poets who lived in England's Lake District. He was the youngest of 14 children who showed his intellectual aptitude early. His father, a village vicar and headmaster in Devonshire died when Coleridge was eight. His family sent him off to study on scholarship at a boarding school near London, where he remembered feeling “depressed, moping, friendless” bringing out the first visible signs of depression caused by isolation. The twin demons of mental illness and addiction caused Coleridge to fail at nearly everything he attempted in life. His addiction to alcohol and opium is well known and documented, so was his crippling anxiety and depression. There are empirical speculations that he suffered from Bipolar disorder - an illness that had not been identified in his lifetime.

Bipolar Disorder, previously termed Manic Depression, is a mental disorder that causes a cyclic wave of abnormally elevated mood known as Mania or Hypomania, followed by a period of Depression. Those afflicted with bipolar disorder possess a higher rate of relationship problems, economic instability, accidental injuries, and suicidal tendencies.

During the Hypomania phase, a Bipolar personality tends to be easily irritated or distracted, make an uncharacteristically poor judgement, make frivolous decisions, and indulge in drug abuse. This behaviour is evident from Coleridge’s impulsive nature during his prime years. He was considered “the most restless, unsettled, and dendritic of minds,” Coleridge’s life often consisted of impulsive decisions made during maniacal episodes. As cited in Romanticism: An Anthology by Duncan Wu, “Coleridge joined the King’s Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. And after six weeks he was discharged and the Regimental Muster Roll recorded: ‘discharge S. T. Comberbache Insane; 10 April 1794.’” At this time, in a letter to his brother, Coleridge wrote:

“I laugh almost like an insane person when I cast my eye backward on the prospect of my past two years – What a gloomy Huddle of eccentric Actions, and dim-discovered motives!.. – since that period my Mind has been irradiated by Bursts only of Sunshine – at all other times gloomy with clouds, or turbulent with tempests…. It had been better for me, if my Imagination had been less vivid….I seized the empty gratifications of the moment, and snatched at the Foam, as the Wave passed by me. – My Brother”

Through a thorough examination of writings, we can look at specific mental states of individuals, which in turn may inform those looking for answers, or symptoms of bipolar minds, Coleridge speaks of his last two years and describes them as having “eccentric Actions, and dim-discovered motives!” He admits his actions are fuelled by an unknown source that is dimly discovered. He descriptively tells the story of his manic-depressive states as he uses metaphors and bold language to depict states of “Bursts only of Sunshine” or “turbulent with tempests.” His impulsive mood is described here with fierce language like “seized” and “snatched” as he uses the metaphor of a wave to describe the ebb and flow of his bipolar states. He describes his imagination as “vivid” which is often a trait of manic-depression as ideas explode in the mind vividly and clarity takes hold. Further, the manic bipolar tendencies are apparent from the testimonials by William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, who outlined him as unreliable and often unpredictable, and as someone who regularly found himself penniless.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was first published in Lyrical Ballads. The poem is about retribution, punishment, guilt, and curse, the Ancient Mariner in the poem has to pay for the impulsive act of killing the Albatross. Through the poem, Coleridge is able to exercise his mind, unveiling the deep-seated knowledge gleaned from his own experiences with his mental state. The “hot and cooper sky” and “bloody Sun” connotes a painful state that hovers above the mast and sits there “Day after day, day after day.” Like most depressive episodes that last for days or more, Coleridge points to a prolonged state that continues for days where they are “stuck” with no “breath nor motion.” Depression is described as suffocating and paralyzing. Coleridge writes “Water, water everywhere, / And all the boards did shrink.” The image clearly articulates the feelings experienced by a person suffering from manic-depression. The image of water represents the journey of a bipolar person that sails through life with bouts of depression and gets caught in depleted states of nothingness. “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/Alone on a wide, wide sea!/And never a saint took pity” Coleridge reiterates the state of the Mariner’s mind by repeating the word “alone” three times as if being alone is a long endured dark place on a “wide, wide sea.” This sentiment mirrors that of a depressed person who can feel long stretches of loneliness and dark times which unfold in waves similar to that of a sea. Coleridge writes “and never a saint to pity on me” which points to the hopelessness often endured during bouts of depression where one feels completely abandoned with no one to turn to. Coleridge states not even a “saint” took “pity” on him. His use of the word “pity” points to a heightened state of desperation that begs for help.

In the poem, The Mariner is forced to wear the bird about his neck as a symbol of guilt. “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung”. Looking at the poem through the psychiatric and psychological domain, the symbolism, the narration and the entire setting of the poem represent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Mariner suffers from survivor′s guilt and his condition worsened when he saw all the sailors dying in front of him. The Mariner is a lone survivor. He becomes closed-off psychically and finds himself trapped in a profound sense of guilt.

“But oh! More horrible than that Is the curse in a dead man′s eye! Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, And yet I could not die”

Another phobia that overtakes him is Stygiophobia, an irrational fear of hell. Its symptoms are breathlessness, excessive sweating, dry mouth, nausea, feeling sick, heart palpitations, and the inability to speak or think clearly, a fear of dying, a sensation of detachment from reality or an anxiety attack. With his careful craftsmanship, Coleridge not only expressed the nuances of his Bipolar mind but also ventured into the arena of fear psychosis. The mental stress of a person under a crisis situation has remarkably been evoked in this poem.

Bipolar disorder holds a notorious affinity to be comorbid by nature, where Anxiety, suicidal tendencies and Substance Abuse are often diagnosed in clusters. According to the statistics presented by the American Journal of Managed Care: Symptoms of bipolar disorder such as anxiety, pain, depression, and sleeplessness are so alarming, that many individuals will turn to drugs and alcohol as a means for offsetting the discomfort, if only for a little while. The disorder of Substance Abuse interrelated to Coleridge's Bipolar nature is evident since, he allegedly used large quantities of Opium in the form of Laudanum to not only placate his Neuralgic pain and cure his insomnia, but also counter his Anxiety attacks caused due to Hypochondria ( an abnormal chronic anxiety about one’s health) - The following anxiety is evident in the content of the letters Coleridge wrote to Thomas Cottle, his publisher:

“A devil, a very devil, has got possession of my left temple, eye, cheek, jaw, throat, and shoulder. I cannot see you this evening. I write in agony. I am seriously ill. The complaint, my medical attendant says, is nervous—and originating in mental causes. I take laudanum every four hours, 25 drops each dose.”

To conclude, Socrates' postulate that "some of the highest goods have come to us by way of madness", that a state of profound self-alienation can produce the most meaningful expressions of human existence. The ‘Mad Genius’ of a poet is often misunderstood as insane throughout the ages and paradoxically, the array of mental disorders too have been equally cloaked within the garb of ‘creativity’, hence we may consider the art of poetry as a lobotomy of the psyche of the poet, a dissection which spills to the world, the intermingled truth of creative imagination and morbid mental state, inherent within a sensitive imaginative poet’s mind.

Anushka Saha is a budding linguist with an undergraduate degree in English Literature and currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Linguistics from the University of Calcutta.

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