I’ve been wanting for a while now to write about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his connections with my home county of Somerset, where he lived from 1797 to 1798, and where he wrote his greatest poems, including Frost at Midnight, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and the first part of Christabel.
It’s strange to me that Coleridge is frequently referred to as one of the “Lake Poets” – for despite spending time living in the Lake District, and forging important friendships with both William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, he grew up in the West Country, and it was here he found his truest inspiration as a poet.
He was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1772, the youngest child of the Reverend John Coleridge, vicar of the parish. When his father died in 1781, the young Coleridge was sent to Christ’s Hospital in London, where he received an excellent education, but was often homesick, and grief-stricken at the loss of his father, whom he had greatly loved.
He went up to Cambridge in 1791, but never completed his degree, and at one point (and this is my favourite piece of Coleridge-related trivia) left the university to enlist in the cavalry under the pseudonym Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, but kept falling off his horse, and was only really useful at writing love letters for the other dragoons. His brothers eventually bought him out.
He became friends with fellow poet Robert Southey, whose politics in those days were, like Coleridge’s, very radical, and the two planned to found a commune in Pennsylvania, though in the end this came to nothing. But Coleridge did agree – to his lasting regret, for the two were not suited – to marry Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancée Edith, and the two poets had a joint wedding in St Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, in 1795.
This was the same year that Coleridge met Wordsworth, and the key relationship of his writing career began. And in 1797, he moved to Somerset.
The house where he lived, in Nether Stowey, is now known as Coleridge Cottage, and is owned by the National Trust. William and Dorothy Wordsworth came to visit him there, and were taken enough by the surrounding countryside that they decided to rent nearby Alfoxton House, and for a year the two poets saw each other every day, and took long walks in the hills and along the coast, inviting the suspicion of a government paranoid about potential French invasion – the radical young writers were suspected of being spies, and were followed for a while by a government agent, who eventually concluded that they were only “mere poets”!
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, especially, was inspired by real locations in Somerset, like Watchet harbour, which became the port from which the Mariner sets sail, as this statue in the town commemorates –
Likewise, the woods of North Hill, above the nearby town of Minehead, become in the poem the home of the Hermit:
This Hermit good lives in that wood / Which slopes down to the sea.
Kubla Khan, of course, was never completed – at the time he wrote it, Coleridge had moved a few miles west of Nether Stowey, staying in a farmhouse “between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire”. He had been taken ill, and tells us that “an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair” (though we know from his notes that his “profound sleep” was actually an hallucinatory dream brought on by opium). Having nodded off over Samuel Purchas’s account of “Cublai Can”‘s “stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall”, Coleridge woke with a vivid recollection of having composed a long poem on the subject during his “sleep”, and immediately set about writing it down. But famously he was interrupted “by a person on business from Porlock”, and by the time he returned to his desk he had forgotten the rest. Nevertheless, what remains is one of the most memorable visionary poems of the Romantic period:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
After leaving Somerset, Coleridge spent some time travelling in Germany, before settling in Keswick, in Cumbria, on his return to England in 1800. Here he completed Christabel, and could be near his friends the Wordsworths, and Southey. But his life had already started to fall apart – his marriage was unhappy, and he and Wordsworth fell out in 1810, and weren’t properly reconciled for another eighteen years. His addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in brandy) took its toll on his health, and after a spell in Malta he moved to London, eventually becoming part of the household of physician James Gillman. He kept working, and writing, until his death in 1834, and his criticism and philosophy were a major influence on younger writers like Thomas Carlyle, but he wrote little poetry after 1807.
Still, despite abandoning his family (his friend Southey took them in), Coleridge remains, in the words of Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, in the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, “lovable”: “Literature necessarily is as much a matter of personality as it is of character,” they write. “Coleridge has, as Walter Pater observed, a ‘peculiar charm’; he seems to lend himself to myths of failure.”
What a brilliant failure, though.