Devonshire writer John Fisher tells the story of how John…
EVERYONE (well, almost everyone) has heard of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Kubla Kahn but some of us might struggle to remember who wrote them, even though he ranks amongst Devon’s most famous sons.
He was the founder, along with William Wordsworth, of the Romantic Movement, he was a poet, writer, philosopher and an extraordinarily gifted speaker who, like Sir Walter Raleigh before him, never lost his rich Devon accent.
The voice of a poet
His name was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) and this is how Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, described the man and that remarkable voice:
“At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes: he is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish, loose-growing, half-curling, rough, black hair . . . But, if you hear him speak for five minutes you think no more of them”.
Wordsworth himself, a lifelong friend, likened it to ‘a majestic river’. “He talks as a bird sings, as if he could not help it: it is his nature”.
But whilst that ‘majestic river’ was little more than a two year-old babbling brook Coleridge himself recalled his first spoken words. “I was carelessly left by my nurse, ran to the fire, and pulled out a live coal – burnt myself dreadfully. While my hand was being dressed by a Mr Young, I spoke for the first time (so my mother informs me) and said,’Nasty Doctor Young!’ The snatching at fire, and the circumstance of my first words expressing hatred to professional men”.
A spoiled child
STC was born – a Wednesday’s child – on 21 October, 1772 in Ottery St. Mary, the tenth and last child of the Reverend John Coleridge, Ottery’s vicar (1719-1781) and his second wife, Anne.
His father was headmaster of Henry VIII’s Free Grammar School (nowadays the King’s School) in Ottery and was a tad eccentric in that he gave long Bible readings in Hebrew – to what must have been a somewhat bewildered congregation – because he believed the language to be closer to the word of God.
At three STC went to the so-called Reading school in Ottery, “because I was too little to be trusted among my father’s schoolboys’. By the end of that first year he could read a chapter from the Bible.
Father’s book burning
At six years he had found some of the racier stories in The Arabian Nights and the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin: “I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings and was haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark: my father found out the effect which these books had produced, and burnt them”.
By the time he graduated to his father’s school he was a phenomena – and by his own account something of an enfant terrible. “So I became fretful and timorous, and a tell-tale; and the schoolboys drove me from play, and were always tormenting me, and hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports, but read incessantly”.
“And though despised and hated by the boys; because I could read and spell, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women. And so I became very vain”.
Of his father, STC wrote “He had so little parental ambition in him, that, but for my Mother’s pride and spirit, he would certainly have brought up his other sons to trades – had nevertheless resolved that I should be a parson. He was very was fond of me and used to take me on his knee and hold long conversations with me”.
The deep impression his father’s words and teachings made on his young mind was profound and is evident in his philosophical works and poetry, yet Coleridge was only to know him for seven short years.
“I remember walking with him one winter evening”, he said, “from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – he told me the names of the stars and… when I came home he showed me how they rolled round”.
“I heard him with a profound delight and admiration but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity. Ought children to be permitted to read romances and stories of giants , magicians and genii? I know of no other way of giving the mind a love of the Great and the Whole”.
STC’s mother, Anne Bowden Coleridge (1726-1809) came from Exmoor and married her husband, a widower with four sons, in Exeter. She bore him nine sons and one daughter, Samuel being the baby of the family.
She was “industriously attentive to her household duties, and devoted to the care of her husband and family”.
“She had neither love nor sympathy for display in others. and she disliked, as she would say, ‘harpsichord ladies’, and strongly tried to impress upon her sons their little value in these accomplishments in their choice of wives”.
A night of drama
Anne spoiled her youngest child, something that did not endear him to his older brother, Francis.“When I was seven,” Coleridge related, “I had asked my mother one evening to cut my cheese entire so that I might toast it. This was no easy matter , it being a crumbly cheese”.
“I went into the garden for something or other and in the meantime my Brother Frank minced my cheese ‘to disappoint the favourite’. I returned, saw the exploit, and in an agony of passion flew at Frank – he pretended to be seriously hurt by the blow, flung himself on the ground, and there lay with outstretched limbs – I hung over his moaning & in a great fright – he leapt up & with a horse laugh gave me a severe blow in the face – I seized a knife, and was running at him when my Mother came in & took me by the arm – I expected a flogging – and struggling from her I ran away, to the hill at the bottom of which the Otter flows – about one mile from Ottery”.
“There I stayed: my rage died away but not my obstinacy & taking out a little shilling book which had, at the end, morning & evening prayers , I very devotedly repeated them – thinking at the same time with inward & gloomy satisfaction, how miserable my Mother must be!”
Night fell by the Otter amid pouring rain and as he hid in the damp grass he was cry’d by the Ottery Crier and neighbours scoured the woods and meadows, ponds were dragged, so too was the river – all in vain.
He was found in the morning and carried to his bed. The rheumatic fever he later contracted afflicted him for years to come and was treated with laudanum, which fostered a lifelong opium addiction.
With the church (including the church cat) and churchyard his immediate playgrounds he later recalled how “I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me sudden and in a flood; and I then was accustomed to run up and down the churchyard and act over again all I had been reading, to the docks and the nettles and the rank grass. I became a dreamer.”
Towards the latter end of September 1781 his father died suddenly and unexpectedly on his return from Plymouth where he had taken brother Francis to become a midshipman. “The image of my father,” Coleridge wrote, “my revered, kind, kind, learned, simple hearted father, is a religion to me”.
A change of name
In April of the next year he was taken to the Feniton crossroads and lifted up and onto the outside of the coach that was to take him to London: that departure point, marked today by a tall, stone cross erected to honour the memory of a martyred kinsman, Bishop John Coleridge Patteson – was the start of his exile away from the place and people he loved, for some seven long years.
He had been given a charity place at Christ’s Hospital in London and of his time there he wrote that he was “Depressed, moping, friendless, a poor orphan, half starved,” yet it was here .that he made lifelong friendships with boys who were to become some of the great writers in the English language. Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt to name but a few.
He left Christ’s when he was 17 and went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, studied hard and wrote Greek poetry “like a mad dog” – which won him a prize – but he never took a degree and after walking away from his studies twice and “indulging in a tempest of pleasure in London” he changed his name to Silas Tomkyn Cumberbatch and became a horse-soldier with the Dragoons.
(He always hated his first name, Samuel, and frequently used pseudonyms in his writing. His pen names included Gnome, Zagri, and Nehemiah Higginbottom).
His military career lasted some four months before he was bought-out by his family and returned to Cambridge.
Picnic among pixies
Before he married Sarah Fricker (1740-1845) and in search of a love – or at least romance – in his life he came back from Cambridge to Ottery, first stop the family home and his mother but then, two days later, he headed back to his beloved river Otter and one of his childhood’s secret places. This was the so-called Pixies’ Parlour and this his chosen spot for a rather special picnic he hosted.
It is a place that survives to this day – more or less – and inspired one of his poems Songs of the Pixies – causing Lord Byron to taunt him by writing that, “He has a pixie for a muse!” This is the poem’s introduction:
“The Pixies, in the superstition of Devonshire, are a race of beings invisibly small, and harmless or friendly to man. At a small distance from a village in that county, half-way up a wood-covered hill, is an excavation called the Pixies’ Parlour. The roots of old trees form its ceiling; and on its sides are innumerable cyphers, among which the author discovered his own cypher and those of his brothers, cut by the hand of their childhood. At the foot of the hill flows the river Otter. To this place the Author, during the summer months of the year 1793, conducted a party of young ladies; one of whom, of stature elegantly small, and of complexion colourless yet clear, was proclaimed the Faery Queen”.
That young lady’s name was Elizabeth Boutflower, who, whilst doubtless delighted with the attention was evidently not sufficiently impressed by STC’s rhyming couplets and married elsewhere some short while after.
What then of that epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the wondrous Kubla Kahn and the rest? All of these came later and together with the fuller story of his extraordinary life beyond the confines of the beautiful Otter Valley are well documented elsewhere whilst this is solely about his formative years in his beloved Devon.
After his death in Highgate, London on Friday, 25 July 1834 at the age of just 52, it was said of him that “As a poet, his place is indisputable: it is high among the highest of all time”.
A poet’s pilgrimage
But the greatest tribute by one great poet to another must surely be the pilgrimage that William Wordsworth made to Ottery St. Mary some 13 years after his great friend’s death.
How this came about is related by the late John Whitham in his book Ottery St. Mary, a Devonshire Town, who recounts an episode in the life of Francis George Coleridge (1794-1854) who practised as a solicitor in the town, as did John Whitham.
“On coming into the church one afternoon towards the end of May, 1841, he had noticed a tall, elderly gentleman. Thinking that he was an interested visitor, he approached him and was surprised to find he was the celebrated poet William Wordsworth. He gave him a warm welcome and invited him to tea with his family at the Manor House”.
Wordsworth had travelled from the Lake District to make farewell visits to his old haunts in the Quantocks after an absence of over 40 years and had decided to include this, the birthplace of his old friend at the culmination of his journey to the West Country.
How appropriate therefore that the very place where a friendless little boy once ‘moped and played and dreamed’, the self-same place that Wordsworth came to pay tribute to friendship and genius is to become the site of a memorial statue to Devon’s own, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.