Harold Bloom, writing about Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan' in 1961, observed that “Behind Coleridge’s poem [are] the dark fates of Collins, the young Chatterton, Smart, and other doomed poets of sensibility. These are the rich-haired youths of Morn, Apollo sacrifices who precede Coleridge in his appearance with flashing eyes and floating hair”. Coleridge had written his own ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ as a young poet still wedded to the style of the late eighteenth century:
O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive!
Sure thou would'st spread the canvas to the gale,
And love, with us, the tinkling team to drive
O'er peaceful freedom's undivided dale;
And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,
Hanging, enraptured, on thy stately song
And greet with smiles the young-eyed poesy
All deftly mask'd, as hoar antiquity.
Chatterton had, like Coleridge, blossomed early as a poet after attending a charity school because his father had died and his mother had no other means of support. His facility for original verse went with a talent for reconstructing the works of earlier practitioners. Like Iolo Morganwg, who came after him, and others of his age, he used this talent for antiquarian reconstruction to create imitations of medieval texts. He composed a series of ‘Rowley poems’ to this end. Initially he was taken up by Horace Walpole , the author of The Castle of Otranto , who at first thought he recognized a kindred spirit when Chatterton sent him some of his work, but subsequently dropped him when he realized that he was a poor apprentice. Chatterton remained unrecognized, in spite of attracting the interest of some publishers in London, and eventually committed suicide in 1770, still in his teens. Al Alvarez, in his study of literary suicides, observed that “Later the Romantics transformed him into a symbol of the doomed poet. In fact, he was a victim of Grub Street and snobbery.” Coleridge himself was more fortunate and lived well on into middle age in spite of his opium addiction. It was left to others who succeeded him as Romantic poets, to fulfil the stereotype and die young.
Although he felt he had squandered his talent as a poet “in abstruse musings”, Coleridge’s status as a sage in his later years makes him, in retrospect, a rather unlikely candidate for the title “doomed bard of sensibility”. His Biographia Literaria offered the distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’ as the way of distinguishing the true poetic facility from the merely clever. And it might be said that, in living the imaginative life to the full, and in the often catastrophic circumstances of his life, he did in fact carry the role of doomed bard into his later years. Whatever the consequences, and however many times he stopped – like his Ancient Mariner – an initially unwilling listener, the bright-eyed youth never lost the ability to convince his audience that "he on honey-dew had fed and drunk the milk of Paradise”.