Somerset Coast Near Culbone
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his greatest poems during the space of one exciting year, from summer 1797 to summer 1798. During this time he was living in a tiny cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset, with his wife Sara and their baby son. There were visits to his friends the Wordsworths living at a nearby mansion they had managed to wangle a tenancy on. Walks were taken in the Quantock Hills and along beautiful north Somerset and Devon coasts. In the same way that Coleridge found the height of his powers for a brief and intense period of time, his poetry celebrated finding big things in small places. One of his most famous poems, This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison, tells of Coleridge being left behind while his friends go out walking in the Quantocks. Coleridge, with an injured foot, stays behind in Nether Stowey, in the garden of a friend. Sitting in the shade of a tree he imagines what his friends are seeing. In doing so he writes a poem where imagination is not limited by reality. We know nothing of what Coleridge's friends actually saw. Instead we have a lasting vision of what they might have seen. Somehow we always seem to be more interested in what we might see than what we can see. Coleridge was initially disappointed at being left behind, but ended up using the limits of his situation to his advantage.
Ottery St Mary Parish Church
Coleridge was born at Ottery St Mary in Devon on 21st October 1772, son of Rev'd John Coleridge, vicar and master at the local grammar school. Samuel was the youngest of nine children, and described himself as rather a lonely boy: "I became fretful and timorous and a tell-tale, and the school boys drove me from play and were always tormenting me" (quoted Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country by Tom Mayberry). When he wasn't wandering around the countryside on his own, he would be reading voraciously. Books such as Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights meant that a boy living in a small Devon town had a mind that was "habituated to the vast". He wrote of walking at night with his father, who pointed out Jupiter in the sky, describing its size as thousands of times bigger than Earth, and telling of how "the other twinkling stars were suns that had worlds rolling around them". When the dreamy young man went on to study at Christ's Hospital in London, he would escape his everyday world by lying on a school roof and looking up at the sky.
At sixteen Coleridge joined Christ's Hospital's elite, the Grecians, who were preparing for entry to Oxford and Cambridge. The teacher who had most influence over Coleridge, was fearsome Rev'd James Boyer. When Samuel decided he was an atheist, Boyer beat Christianity back into him. Despite such incidents young Coleridge greatly respected the Upper Master, and listened to his down to earth advice about writing poetry from life, rather than from other poetry: "Muse, boy, muse? Your Nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? oh aye! the cloister pump I suppose?" The misfit boy of Ottery St Mary was in his element. Things went less well when he moved on to Jesus College, Cambridge in October 1791. Here he won poetry prizes, and was known as a radical and a brilliant speaker. Privately, however, there was depression and constant worry about debt. In November 1793 Coleridge was desperate enough to try his luck on the Irish lottery in London, which unsurprisingly did not help. The next move was even more desperate. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and speaker on radical topics decided to join the army, enlisting in the 15th Light Dragoons in December 1793 under an imaginative alias, Silas Tomkyn Combermache. Anyone calling themselves Combermache is clearly not taking things seriously, and Coleridge was a hopeless solider. His comrades found a use for him writing their love letters, and he bravely spent a month at Henley military hospital nursing a fellow soldier suffering from smallpox. Meanwhile his father and brother George were busy trying to get this poet nurse out of the army. Initially the army authorities would not budge, but eventually, under much pressure from James Coleridge, a compromise was reached. Silas Tomkyn Combermache was discharged for "being insane". Visions of Blackadder Goes Forth come to mind: "Now listen to me carefully Blackadder. Put a pair of underpants on your head, stick two pencils up your nose, and they'll ship you back to Blightly."
Returning to Cambridge it seemed impossible to settle. June 1794 saw the start of a walking tour which took in Oxford, Bristol, Wales and Somerset. In Oxford a friend from school introduced Coleridge to Robert Southey, a young radical poet who was studying at Balliol. The two young men immediately struck up a friendship. Coleridge impressed Southey with his eloquence and intelligence, Southey impressed Coleridge with his decisiveness and strength. Coleridge was always attracted to strong personalities. His own crippling indecisiveness seemed to call for compensating companionship with those who had the strength he lacked. Talking together the young idealists decided that society in Britain just wasn't good enough, and they would create a perfect society beside the Susquehanna river in New England. Coleridge would dream up the ideas, and decisive Southey would make it happen. In New England twelve men and women would live a perfect life, all their property held in common. Coleridge even came up with a new word "Pantisocracy" to describe their new society: it meant "equal rule by all". After reinventing the world, the new friends headed off in high spirits for more travelling. Coleridge preached Pantisocracy in Wales, and then met up with Southey again in his home town of Bristol. By now they had a few more Pantisocracy recruits, including Southey's mother, who thought the whole plan was madness. Perhaps she just wanted to be around to pick up the pieces when idealism came crashing down.
A friend called Robert Lovell was also won over. More importantly he had just married a beautiful actress called Mary Fricker, and it was through Lovell that Southey and Coleridge were introduced to the other four Fricker sisters. Southey made his move on Edith, while Coleridge, caught up in the excitement of the moment, decided that Sarah, or Sara as he called her, was the one for him. So having sorted out the world, and having organised himself a fiance, Coleridge continued his trip, visiting Cheddar Gorge which made a great impression on him. Returning to Bristol, in late August 1794, Coleridge proposed to Sara. She accepted, and Coleridge returned to Cambridge for what would be his final term. Back at Jesus College an agony of indecision suddenly replaced all the summer's happy plans. Coleridge wrote to Southey explaining that maybe proposing to Sara wasn't a good idea after all, but that he would still do his duty and marry her. When the agreed date for Coleridge's arrival in Bristol had come and gone, Southey found his friend at his London lodgings, put him on a coach, and stood guard over him until they reached Bristol. Love's dream had faded, but a wedding was still planned. Coleridge had also cooled on his crazy American Pantisocracy scheme. Southey suggested a trial run on a Welsh farm, to which a dismayed Coleridge replied: "For God's sake - my dear fellow - tell me what we are to gain by taking a Welsh farm" (quoted Coleridge and Wordsworth in the West Country by Tom Mayberry). But as with his forthcoming wedding, Coleridge went along with the Welsh farm idea.
Coleridge's Cottage, Nether Stowey
By February 1795 the idealists were living frugally in Bristol, in College Street, trying to save money for their Welsh experiment. At some point there was a meeting with an unknown young poet called William Wordsworth who was in town as guest of sugar merchant John Pretor Pinney. Nothing much seemed to come of this meeting. Coleridge had other things on his mind, such as deciding that he loved Sara after all. These changeable ways had begun to grate on Southey. As Coleridge said to his friend: "you sate down and wrote - I used to saunter about and think about what I should write."
Soon they weren't speaking to each other. Perhaps in an effort to get away from this strained atmosphere Coleridge and Sara moved into a cottage at Clevedon on the Somerset coast in August 1795. This was over a month before their marriage, which was quite shocking for the time. They married in October, with the parents of both families deciding to make the best of it. A short period of happiness followed in their seaside cottage, but this idyll came to an end when the weather started to get cold. Coleridge missed Bristol's public library, and as it took him over a day's walk to get to Bristol, Sara was often left on her own in a small, and now chilly cottage. There was very little money to live on. An attempt to run a radical magazine called the Watchman failed miserably. Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle was paying Coleridge some money for his poetry, and had published Poems On Various Subjects in April 1796, but a living couldn't be made out of this. Coleridge had to make up his mind what he was going to do. The thought of becoming a teacher brought on neuralgia, for which he started taking laudanum. In the end no decision was reached, and the couple went to live in a cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset, near a friend named Tom Poole. While Sara struggled to care for a young baby in a tiny cottage, her husband would work in his study or walk in the Quantock Hills. This cottage still survives as Coleridge's cottage, albeit with later additions, and is owned by the National Trust
In the meantime William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had moved into a grand house called Racedown Lodge in Dorset. They were living there rent free, thanks to the benevolence of John Peter Pinney. Since that brief meeting in Bristol in 1795 Wordsworth's reputation had grown, and one day in June 1797 Coleridge decided to pay the Wordsworths a visit. William and Dorothy were gardening, when Coleridge vaulted the gate and ran down the slope towards them. What was meant to be a short visit turned into three weeks. The Wordsworths were then invited back to Nether Stowey, where Sara continued to struggle with living conditions made even more cramped by visitors. In the crush she spilt boiling milk on her husband's foot. This was the scald that kept Coleridge laid up in Tom Poole's garden, writing This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison when the others went off walking in the Quantock Hills. The great creative year of summer 1797 to summer 1798 had begun.
This time started with a house warming party at Alfoxden mansion, which the Wordsworths had somehow managed to rent for a very reasonable rate. Penniless Wordsworth and his sister had a talent for living cheaply in mansions. At the Alfoxden house warming party the usual Wordsworth Coleridge group was joined by friend and radical John Thelwell, who due to his outspoken views about the government had spent some time in the Tower of London. Thelwell did his usual turn after lunch, ranting on about the government so forcefully that he frightened Thomas Jones, the local man hired to help with catering. Thomas Jones passed a story of goings on at Alfoxden, via another servant, to Dr David Lyons of Bath, who wrote to the home secretary, who despatched a spy to keep an eye on the strange group. They laughed about it, Coleridge making a joke about a supposed conversation regarding Spinoza being overheard as a conversation about "Spy Nozey". But the danger had been real. Thelwell had already spent time in jail, and soon moved on. The fuss also meant that the owner of Alfoxden wanted them all out by the following summer, a departure that would mark the end of Coleridge's wonderful year.
Countryside near Culbone
In late August Coleridge, worn down by "the malignity of aristocrats" went to stay for a short time on his own in a lonely farm house, near Culbone Church on the Somerset coast. Visiting the area of Culbone today you still get a powerful sense of isolation. The roads are little more than tracks, and probably the best way to visit Culbone village is on foot via the South West Coast Path. Coleridge's plan was to spend his time on this lonely coastline finishing a play called Orsorio, which playwright Richard Sheridan had commissioned. Whilst at Culbone, Coleridge took a few grains of opium. This was to relieve what he variously described as "dysentery" or "a slight indisposition". For whatever reason, he took the opium and fell asleep, and dreamt of a wonderful poem that simply wrote itself in his mind. On waking he excitedly started to write the poem down. This famous story then continues with an interruption by a tradesman from nearby Porlock, who is supposed to have detained Coleridge for an hour. Sitting down to continue work on the poem, most of it had disappeared. Nevertheless enough remained to make Kubla Khan into a famous poem, using images of the countryside of the Quantocks, and of Cheddar Gorge. In Kubla Khan a great king decides to hold nature within his pleasure dome, covering twice five miles of ground. The Romantic poets were writing about nature at a time when mankind's sway over the natural world was becoming all pervasive. The twice five miles of fertile ground which Kubla Khan took for his garden contained "caverns measureless to man". Once again we see the characteristic Coleridge theme of big worlds in small worlds. Kubla Khan has his pleasure dome, only a few miles across: but the nature within it has a vastness that will not be so easily contained.
Another classic poem was begun soon after on a walk with Wordsworth along the north Devon coast. There was talk of a collaboration, and out of these discussions came the idea for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It may have been based on books Coleridge was reading at the time, or on a dream a friend from Nether Stowey had told him about. The harbour at Watchet is certainly the harbour from which the Mariner sets sail in the poem, and a commemorative monument sits on Watchet harbour front. The poem's first lines were supposed to have been written at the Bell Inn, Watchet. Strangely this poem set in the vast spaces of oceans known and unknown, mirrors the feelings of poems such as This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison. As The Rime of the Ancient Mariner develops it becomes impossible to disentangle the big world of the ocean from the Mariner's claustrophobia in his cramped little world on his ship. It seems impossible to experience the ocean's vast space, without putting up with the ship's confines. Big worlds and small worlds continue to exist together. When things are at their worst and there is no water to drink, does the world become the Mariner's own delirious dream? By the end of the poem, as the harbour at Watchet appears ahead after the terrible voyage, the Mariner himself does not know.
- The area which inspired much of this poetry can be explored on the Coleridge Way, and on the South West Coast Path.
Money worries continued, and there were plans to become a clergyman in Shrewsbury. But these plans were shelved, when two wealthy admirers, Thomas and Josiah Wedgewood, sons of the famous potter, offered £150 a year to Coleridge for the rest of his life. Now with unexpected financial security it was possible to enjoy a pleasant holiday period during the last months of the Wordsworth's tenancy of Alfoxden. Coleridge wrote Frost At Midnight one cold night in February 1798, addressed to his infant son. It was another solitary conversation poem that reached beyond the limits of a small house on a cold night. On 23rd March 1798, so the traditional story says, Coleridge read his complete Rime Of The Ancient Mariner to Wordsworth at Alfoxden. The last months at Alfoxden saw work on poems which were meant to go together in a collaborative volume. Coleridge worked on the first part of his remarkable poem Christabel with its very modern reflection on fluctuating categories of right and wrong. But then when the tenancy on Alfoxden finally ended so did the magic of that special year. William and Dorothy went to Bristol and Coleridge spent some time in Germany, seeing this as a good place to further his self education. Sara sensibly decided that with two young children it would be better for her to stay in Nether Stowey. This separation was to ruin their marriage, Sara feeling justifiably abandoned when her second child was born. The child, named Berkley, died of tuberculosis in February 1799: Coleridge did not return from Germany until July of that year.
The Lake District
By 1800 the now unhappy Coleridges settled in Keswick in the Lake District. The Coleridge house, Greta Hall, wasn't far from Wordsworth's Lake District home. But the closeness of their old relationship had gone. The thirteen years Coleridge spent at Greta Hall were difficult. A long term addiction to opium became more serious, and poetry was harder to write. Dejection, An Ode is one of the few successful poems to come out of these years. In 1807 Wordsworth read The Prelude to Coleridge, a poem which brought back memories of those bright days at Alfoxden. The poem also threw into focus Coleridge's own decline.
Coleridge found work, and some self-respect as a lecturer on famous English writers. He was on a lecture tour in the west country in 1813 when increasing intakes of opium and alcohol finally caused a mental and physical crisis. For many days he raved in agony, and needed to be watched constantly to prevent suicide attempts. Whilst recovering he lived with Highgate surgeon Dr James Gillman. At first the arrangement was temporary, but from 1816 Coleridge became a permanent resident, with his own rooms at the top of the house. He lived with Gillman's family for eighteen years. Sara and his son would visit occasionally. Coleridge died on 25th July 1834, and is buried in Highgate churchyard.
A poetic epitaph was written the year before, and it includes the lines:
Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he
O, lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C. -
That he for many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death
The story of Coleridge is a sad one. His powers reached their peak for only a short time, and he was aware that the rest of his life never repeated the excitement of those months in Nether Stowey. But the brilliance of the poems he wrote during those months lies in taking limits and stepping outside them. The poems of 1797 and 1798 are not limited to that time, nor to a small part of England. They are like a small ship that sails a big ocean. They still reach out. The excitement of there and then, is also the excitement of here and now.