Poet philosopher who drew swooning crowds

THE ROADS around the Royal Institution in London were jammed with carriages when in 1808 the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge began a series of talks there on the principles of poetry . Coleridge was one of the pop stars of his day, a bigger draw than even Richard Dawkins can aspire to now. "The audience was fashionable, sophisticated and easily bored," writes Richard Holmes in the second volume of his biography of Coleridge, Darker Reflections. "Tickets were expensive, expectations were high."

Acoustics in the Great Lecture Room were good enough for a whisper to be heard clearly. "It held up to 500 people in a hemisphere of steeply tiered seats, with a gallery above and a circle of gas lamps, creating an atmosphere both intimate and intensely theatrical."

Coleridge was required to submit his lectures in advance, but he often ignored the script and improvised, much to the frustration of the Institution. The results were unorthodox and sometimes scandalous, but they also came to be regarded as brilliant and significant. "No one could tell from one performance to the next if he would be inspired or obscure," writes Holmes. "But he tasted a new kind of fame, and even notoriety." When he was on form, Coleridge was unlike anything London had heard before.

The series ended badly, with the poet tormented by violent sickness and the Institution inclined to cut things short. Much later, events were held in celebration of the series, as some of the most remarkable lectures ever given at the Institution. "It came to be seen as a historic linkage between philosophies of poetry and science," writes Holmes. It also launched Coleridge into a career as one of the most gifted lecturers of his day. CM