Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a British Romantic poet and philosopher who had incalculable impact in shaping American Transcendentalism
. His major influence on the New England Transcendentalists was through his philosophical prose works rather than his poetry. Works such as The Friend
(1812) were important for the Transcendentalists as they presented German philosophy, especially the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling
, in elegant and inspirational English. In Biographia Literaria
(1817), he made a vital contribution to Transcendental poetic theory in his discussion of the Imagination. More important than these works for the Transcendentalists was Aids to Reflection
(1825), which appeared in New England in 1829, edited and provided with a rousing introduction by James Marsh
. This book, which almost single-handedly initiated the Transcendentalist movement, refuted the sensationalist school of John Locke, fused the material and the spiritual, and advanced the crucial distinction between the Reason and the Understanding. William Ellery Channing
claimed that he owed more to Coleridge than to other philosophers. Amos Bronson Alcott
found the antidote to Lockean psychology in his readings of Coleridge--that what was in the mind was God. Ralph Waldo Emerson
greatly relied upon Coleridge's ideas in his sermons and Nature
The prophet of the new philosophy in England was Samuel Taylor Coleridge; in the early part of the present century, perhaps the most conspicuous figure in our literary world; the object of more admiration, the centre of more sympathy, the source of more intellectual life than any individual of his time; the criticism, the censure, the manifold animadversion he was made the mark for, better attest his power than the ovations he received from his worshippers. The believers in his genius lacked words to express their sense of his greatness. He was the "eternal youth," the "divine child." The brilliant men of his period acknowledged his surpassing brilliancy; the deep men confessed his depth; the spiritual men went to him for inspiration. His mind, affluent and profuse, contained within no barriers of conventional form, poured an abounding flood of thoughts over the whole literary domain. He was essayist, journalist, politician, poet, dramatist, metaphysician, philosopher, theologian, divine, critic, expositor, dreamer, soliloquizer; in all eloquent, in all intense. The effect he produced on the minds of his contemporaries will scarcely be believed now. At present he is little more than a name: his books are pronounced unreadable; his opinions are not quoted as authority; his force is spent. . . .
In May, 1796,--he was then twenty-four years old,--Coleridge wrote to a friend, "I am studying German, and in about six weeks shall be able to read that language with tolerable fluency. Now I have some thoughts of making a proposal to Robinson, the great London bookseller, of translating all the works of Schiller, which would make a portly quarto, on condition that he should pay my journey and my wife's to and from Jena, a cheap German University where Schiller resides, and allow me two guineas each quarto sheet, which would maintain me. If I could realize this scheme, I should there study chemistry and anatomy, and bring over with me all the works of Semler and Michaelis, the German theologians, and of Kant, the great German metaphysician." In September, 1798, in company with Wordsworth and his sister, and at the expense of his munificent friends Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood, he went to Germany and spent fourteen months in hard study. There he attended the lectures of Eichhorn and Blumenbach, made the acquaintance of Tieck, dipped quite deeply into philosophy and general literature, and took by contagion the speculative ideas that filled his imagination with visions of intellectual discovery. Schelling's "Transcendental Idealism," with which Coleridge was afterwards most in sympathy, was not published till 1800. The "Philosophy of Nature" was published in 1797, the year before Coleridge's visit. In 1817, he tells the readers of the "Biographia Literaria" that he had been able to procure only two of Schelling's books--the first volume of his "Philosophical Writings," and the "System of Transcendental Idealism"; these and "a small pamphlet against Fichte, the spirit of which was, to my feelings, painfully incongruous with the principles, and which displayed the love of wisdom rather than the wisdom of love."
The philosophical ideas of Schelling commended themselves at once to Coleridge, who was a born idealist, of audacious genius, speculative, imaginative, original, capable of any such abstract achievement as the German undertook. . . . Coleridge was a pure Transcendentalist, of the Schelling school. The transcendental phrases came over and over in book and conversation, "reason" and "understanding," "intuition," "necessary truths," "consciousness," and the rest that were used to describe the supersensual world and the faculties by which it was made visible. . . .
. . . In 1829 "The Aids to Reflection" were republished by Dr. James Marsh. Caleb Sprague Henry, professor of philosophy and history in the University of New York in 1839, and before that a resident of Cambridge, an enthusiastic thinker and eloquent talker, loved to dilate on the genius of the English philosopher, and was better than a book in conveying information about him, better than many books in awakening interest in his thought. The name of Coleridge was spoken with profound reverence, his books were studied industriously, and the terminology of transcendentalism was as familiar as commonplace in the circles of divines and men of letters. . . .