Coleridge and Wordsworth in Nether Stowey
Welcome to my second instalment on life over here in the UK. For this piece I thought it best to look at some local history to where I reside, in Nether Stowey – here in the Somerset countryside. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described it as “The deer Gutter of Stowey”. Coleridge is most famous for his poetry – and he wrote all his most famous poems and other notable prose in Somerset, particularly in Nether Stowey. Not in the north of England in the Lake District, as is often assumed. However, as I found out at one of the “Friends of Coleridge” conferences I attended in 2010 – Coleridge was primarily a “Philosopher”. Unlike career poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge really was diverse. Only Blake and Shelley have similar diversity, though as this magazine is called “eclectic” then Coleridge is the very embodiment of the word! Later he would describe himself (to William Godwin, the novelist) as “half poet – half madman”. He was a poet, a playwright, a journalist, political radical, a religious preacher, a lecturer (much like later with Charles Dickens), critic, a theologian, essayist, dramatist, metaphysician…the list seems endless…As a critic his love of Shakespeare even led to “Hamlet’s” first staging in over a hundred years. In this article rather than compiling a generic factual account you could read anywhere – I have tried to go into the background behind the poems and influences as well as such aspect as the imagination, science and collective memory. The latter being the collective memories, often inherited, within social groups and passed on down the ages to us all.
Sometimes I walk our Quantock hills, virtually alone, but for the occasional cyclist…and a sense of childish glee grips me. The thought occurs to me of how many great thinkers walked these hills so long ago. Even more surprising is the lack of knowledge amongst many that live here. True “Coleridge Cottage”, owned by the National Trust – has done a creditable job of informing the uninitiated, though its rather flawed attempt to create a rather sanitised 21st century fakery of an 18th and early 19th century “miserable hovel” leaves a little to be desired. However, as it was before its recent facelift – it is still essential to visit. To Coleridge, the Quantocks were an idyll of clear brooks where he once more lived amongst the West Country meadows of his childhood. Nearby was the sea. He felt he had everything here. He wrote of pretty girls and dances and “Sea, Hill and wood, this populous village!” Even though he was poor – he was at the happiest point of his life. Today, the Quantocks are magnificent, but always under developer threat. It is a mouth-watering prospect to imagine them in Coleridge’s time, before the motorcar and roads that accompanied them.
My last piece concentrated on environmental issues. In a sense this isn’t totally unrelated to the current pieces subject matter. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was very much a man of nature. The environment, it could be argued, is a central tenet of his revolutionary 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. In fact, the figure of the “Albatross”, (“the pious bird of good omen”), it could be said, is a metaphor for nature and man’s meddling of it. When the poem was originally written science and the very beginning of the ideas that led to train travel and the industrial revolution were just in the smallest acorn form of development, in terms of “progress”.
At the age of fourteen (when I first moved here from the metropolis of London’s cultural melting pot of Notting Hill), I had vaguely heard of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Within weeks – back in 1987 – I soon knew a lot more, after I received my ordered instalment of “The Great Writers” magazine and accompanying book. Dickens, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Poe, Orwell, Hardy…everybody that has made a literary impact was covered but on that particular month it was “The Romantic Poets”. I was thrilled to see Byron, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Percy and Mary Shelley, Keats, and William Blake who were all featured but to my astonishment it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his seminal poems – “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that was seen as the pivotal moment. Coleridge’s writing of the “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798 with Wordsworth was afforded tremendous detail and it even included a picture of Alfoxden Manor in Holford – a village near me. The house is now sadly in some disrepair. I never quiet listened to Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” in the same way! (It was written as a tribute to Coleridge).
The “Lyrical Ballads” (as a collective idea by the Wordsworth’s and Coleridge) was intended as an entirely new concept in literature…an experiment. An analogy today might be the partnership of “Lennon and McCartney”. Coleridge had a keen love of puns and a fine sense of humour. He observed puns as “harmless… because it never excites envy.” He also had a capacity for self-criticism – qualities which Wordsworth, his great contemporary and friend, so curiously lacked. It was an experiment to make the supernatural commonplace and everyday life seem unusual. The concept led to the term– “the suspension of disbelief”. Wordsworth would write of the rustic lives of the working and “common man” (an entirely new concept at the time) and Coleridge of the supernatural. The result most notably from Coleridge was the Ancient Mariner story which had been based on an idea surrounding the fate of an Albatross (who “the ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth”). It was suggested by Wordsworth. It was during a walk over to the harbour of Watchet – near Nether Stowey – that the first lines of the poem took shape and were later continued at the Stowey cottage. It is thought the beginning of the poem is set there – thought it isn’t named. In recent years a superb statue of the Mariner was erected. Nearby is Minehead and in the distance, out to sea, you can still see what Coleridge would have seen in the shape of two small islands called “Flat Holm” and “Steep Holm”. One has a lighthouse and is technically in Wales, whilst the other, right next to it, is technically in Somerset. Today an ugly nuclear power station blights the view from many angles. Coleridge would have no doubt discovered the “Daw’s Castle” Viking hill fort, nearby. The whole Ancient Mariner poem seems imbued with the spirit of the West Country, from Wiltshire and Dorset, through Devon and Somerset and down to Cornwall. Many claim in the poem that the Mariner sailed from Watchet and the ship dropped below the church of St Decuman, which stands upon a hill on the outskirts of Watchet. Only recently I visited the church and it is in a fine state. Nearby, a charming well is full of coins, where you can sit and make a wish. A railway line, which carries a heritage line of steam trains, also operates near the church and into Watchet. Lesser mentioned poems from Ballads include, “The Mad Mother”, “The Idiot Boy” and “The Convict”. Wordsworth’s moving poem “The Idiot Boy” was unique in that it depicted the brilliance of a mentally handicapped boy and his worried mother, at a time when little was understood of such conditions, let alone written about. Wordsworth laments his inability to describe in poetry what the story contains. “The Thorn” is a tragic rustic tale inspired by real life tragedies that would be talked of by the inhabitants of many a village. Wordsworth also began a series of poems called “The Lucy Poems” during his time living on the Quantocks – though they were written during trips to Germany. The idealized figure of the tragic Lucy is a lover’s ideal feminine image. Many have tried to trace a real life Lucy – perhaps it might be William writing of Dorothy (there is no overt sexuality in the poems) or one of his wife’s sisters. Finding a “real” Lucy, such as one of the Hutchinson sisters (as has often been suggested) is hard to prove, as Lucy dies in the poems. Perhaps she is symbolic of humanity in the face of nature. Intriguingly one of the Hutchinson sisters did die young. This figure of unrequited love was never revealed by the poet. It could be argued that Coleridge, as a poet, peaked in Nether Stowey – indeed at this stage inspiring and influencing/teaching Wordsworth who grew as a poet, as a result. Whilst in Germany a homesick Wordsworth struggled financially and felt jealous of Coleridge’s comparable prosperity –STC and his friend Tom Poole often entertained other literary figures and those of influence. This is both at odds with the image of Coleridge we have in Bristol, as a debt ridden radical, and also with the later prosperous Poet laureate Wordsworth who became somebody quiet different to the one Coleridge felt he knew. Interestingly, years later, Hartley Coleridge mocked the poems in “On William Wordsworth”.
The Genesis of Ancient Mariner –
The rime of the Ancient Mariner is an epic where nothing is more imaginatively conceived than the transference to a strange and spectral setting of a profoundly human trait. Things seen in Nether Stowey or years earlier among the mountains of North Wales rise like a mirage out of the silence of the mariner’s sea. Here in Somerset at his small cottage in Nether Stowey, we find a Coleridge who is in some ways marooned like the tragic mariner in the poem. But also he is able to live out his ambitions of self-sufficiency and a simple life as had been the aim previously with his dangerous pacifist Pantisocracy movement. I will talk of “Pantisocracy” later. Coleridge had been inspired by Captain George Shelvocke’s real sea voyage accounts of a man who had suffered ill luck and eventual complete demise after his killing of an albatross. Also, a friend John Cruikshank had dreamt of an albatross’s fate and a skeleton ship manned by strange tormented figures. Late in the evening of November 12, 1797, Coleridge sat by candlelight in a “book parlour” set aside for his use by Tom Poole. This cosy low vaulted chamber, complete with fireplace and well-stocked bookshelves, had become his favourite study. He worked here during the day. But earlier this evening, his wife and child having retired, STC had felt moved to pursue an intuition arising from a neighbours dream. He had returned to the parlour for a brief moment, but found himself instead scratching notes in the margins of a real-life adventure by Samuel Hearne, entitled “A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson Bay to the North Ocean”. Coleridge had recently composed a literary ballad called “The Three Graves”, drawing on what, years from now, he would describe as “Hearne’s deeply interesting anecdotes” about witchcraft and superstition among the native peoples of North America. For this theme and its development, he had borrowed the old navigator’s tale of the laying on of a curse. Sam had changed the facts, changing the American native people into English Country folk/sailors. Hearne’s supernatural storyline was unaltered. Coleridge had actually met Hearne six years before in London where Hearne ended his days, at Christ’s Hospital School. He had been introduced to him by William Wales, a friendly Yorkshire man who was head of mathematics at the school. Wales had sailed with Captain James Cook and knew Hearne well. Hearne was the first European to reach the Arctic coast of North America. He was now a tall, gaunt weather-beaten stranger. Coleridge’s intuition had verged on clairvoyance. He recollected Hearne as an older figure of extraordinary presence-yet a man not entirely well. Handsome once, the man was now painfully thin and other worldly, even ethereal. He spoke intelligently but with a partial foreign accent. Coleridge was swept away as the old navigator spoke of the hardships of life at sea. The tales of hunger and the strange magic of the endless voyage pictured a journey that had culminated in a massacre that haunted the old man even now, all this time later, and that he could not recollect without wiping away tears. Hearne felt guilt that he lived on when so many had perished needlessly in the sea disaster. Now, in 1797, as Samuel studied Hearne’s account, Coleridge was struck by its originality. The navigator had not only immersed himself in a foreign culture, but had made of his experience an unforgettable narrative, even while being a pioneering naturalist. Coleridge stared into space, realizing suddenly that he sought not specific images, but a way of entering his projected poem. Perhaps that lay hidden not in Hearne’s account, but in Coleridge himself. STC leaps up to pace the room. Hearne had been so wracked by guilt that he felt compelled to bear witness and to tell his dark tale for ever more. The ideas began to form in Coleridge’s mind as to how he could use the story and work it into his ideas of a skeleton ship. Perhaps he could take the image of the guilt ridden navigator and give him a new narrative? So, one of the greatest poems of all time was born…
During Coleridge’s time in the Nether Stowey he was visited by Charles Lloyd who had rejected his family’s banking ambitions but suffered terrible fits of what might have been seen as mania but were in fact epileptic fits. The young man was undoubtedly neurotic and his literary efforts sank without trace. Coleridge had overestimated his ability, it seems. It was in a spirit of hospitality that Coleridge had invited Lloyd, at the initial joy of his parents, as boarder and pupil. Lloyd was the cause of the only argument between Coleridge and his friend Charles Lloyd. He was a disruptive paying guest. In fact in the end Lloyd’s family banned him from visiting Coleridge as it was seen to be making his nervous fits even worse due to the wild talk and excitement of being with STC for long periods. We can add to Lloyd a long list of thinkers of the age who visited Coleridge in the village.
William Hazlitt (the essayist), – Author of “spirit of the age” he was very much a supporter of the revolutionary Coleridge but later in life was scathing about Coleridge and the rest of the then radicals.
Erasmus Darwin (father of Charles),
Charles and Mary Lamb (famous for the Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare volumes),
Humphrey Davy (discoverer of “Laughing Gas” and inventor of the “Davy Lamp” for miners)
Experiments with laughing gas by the group of friends caused much local gossip. As well as alleged adventures in hot air balloons!
John Thelwall – The revolutionary orator.
He was introduced to Coleridge during a house warming evening of Wordsworth’s at nearby, Alfoxden
Thomas De Quincey (writer of “Confessions of an Opium Eater”). He fondly recollected his journey, by carriage, from Bridgwater and through Cannington to Stowey. Coleridge may well still recognise Cannington’s walled gardens and medieval priory
De Quincey became perhaps not the best influence on Coleridge later in life- supplying him with opium when Coleridge struggled with depression and addiction. Many see STC as bipolar, in today’s language.
Many are surprised when they hear Coleridge only spent the years 1797 – 1800 in Stowey. Still, there were visits to his best friend Tom Poole in Nether Stowey before and after his time in the village. His stay in the village was meant to be long term but local paranoia as to what he and his friend William Wordsworth were up to ended the stay. This is at odds with many happy diary accounts as to how happy he was in the village. The end began when a nearby resident with the wonderful name of “Christopher Tricky” from the village of Holford wrote to the government and fuelled rumours that Coleridge and Wordsworth with their “strange accents” were indeed, French. This was despite the fact that Coleridge still had a partial West Country accent from his Devonshire roots. It is much like, if today, a group of radicals were sighted as being connected with a terrorist group. A government spy named Walsh was sent by the government to spy on Coleridge – even mishearing the endless talk of the philosopher “Spinoza” as talk of a “Spy named Nosey”! Whether this is true in terms of the Spinoza story is open to debate – as is the authenticity of, and use in public talks later in life by Coleridge – of a sword STC insisted he used in the Dragoons (now on display in Coleridge Cottage). As it turned out in 1799 the Wordsworth’s lease to the Alfoxden Manor house was ended…as a result of the allegations that the tow poets and friends were spies. The stay of the radical “Citizen Thelwall” who had been invited by Mr Coleridge – didn’t help.
The poets had gathered information together on rare plants and species and Dorothy Wordsworth had made her observations on her two companions, every move was being watched. It seems intrusive and sad to us today that such an intimate and special reliance of three people for creative passions and free thinking ideas should have been so demonized. Coleridge reluctantly left the village eventually, and his best friend Tom Poole, and so ended the most creative period of his life.
A local parson – William Holland – who lived in Over Stowey, and was vicar, kept a diary which is published under the title “Paupers and Pig Killers”. It is an invaluable insight into rural life in the 1790’s but he has little time for the Coleridge’s – describing Sarah as a “democrat hoyden”. It is thought that in the years after many poets such as Byron and Shelley made a pilgrimage to the area. Robert Southey being from Bristol – returned to Somerset many times to visit the local “Thunder and lightning man…wizard of the Quantocks” – Andrew Crosse – who I may write a future article on – as he claimed to create living insects from conducting electricity from masts in surrounding trees which were connected to his laboratory. In the film “Pandaemonium” made in recent years Julian Temple, the director, has a fun encounter between Coleridge and Crosse. This cannot have taken place whilst STC was living in Stowey but Coleridge may have visited years later having heard of the man from Shelley. Though there are no accounts.
Mary Shelley quotes from “Ancient Mariner” in “Frankenstein” (as did Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”). Mary fondly remembered Coleridge chanting Ancient Mariner to her father William Godwin. She recollected “hiding behind the sofa” – a term so often used since the 1960’s in England when children would hide behind the sofa when the “Daleks” would appear in “the TV Series “Doctor Who”.
Shelley attended the Quantock inventor Andrew Crosse’s lectures in London. Far from being a horrific dissector of body parts, he seems a gentle man who claimed to not only create insects but also a miracle machine that could cure back ailments. Sadly, through arson, all papers and half of his manor – “Fyne Court” was destroyed by fire. Caused once more by local rumours, it is assumed. What remains is preserved and open to the public up the road from Nether Stowey, toward Taunton. It includes a delightfully gothic bat folly.
After being virtually hounded out of Nether Stowey – because of the allegations of being spies for the French, Coleridge travelled to Europe (particularly Gottingen in Germany), meeting his romantic contemporaries such as Johan Von Goethe – Coleridge perhaps translating “Faust” as a result, though this is hotly debated to this day! Various manuscripts are displayed in Gottingen honouring his earlier visits whilst in Stowey.
Coleridge no doubt visited Stowey later in life, as did his son Hartley in later years. Hartley’s demise would be as a result of alcohol at only fifty two. Sam had also visited the village in the run up to moving to the area in 1795/6 but had not acquired the house he had originally had his eyes on. The small cottage was conveniently within walking distance to from the bottom of his garden to his best friend Tom Poole, by what is now called “Tanyard” (in honour of Poole being a Leather Tanner and the nearby original tannery building). Eventually he would reach a library and book/writing room with its distinctive barrel-ceiling in Poole’s house where STC could escape his family and receive generous cups of tea from his patron Poole. William Holland who lived locally said in his diaries that Tom Poole had “ideas above his station” a typical put down for a working class or poor man. In England to say such things – as in terms of what we might say today – “the idiot who thinks he is clever” – a throwaway put down, to a man who thinks he is more than he actually is.
Sometimes Coleridge would visit another neighbour John Cruikshank who had a fine orchard, and whose house is still in fine condition to this day. As a teenager I did some gardening for pocket money at the house and helped uncover some 18th century flooring in one of the old barns. Cruikshank and his young wife were married on the same day as Coleridge and he worked for Lord Egmont, who owned a house in nearby Adscombe in Over Stowey. Sam fell in love with the place, with its beautiful Quantock valley, hoping John could organise a stay there in the long term. Today it is much as it was then. However even though heather covered moorland remains, the oaks and beech trees have been largely replaced by conifers. Having walked the area extensively with his friends Charles Lloyd and John Cruikshank, Coleridge called it his “Woody dale”. Nearby is a small village Cricket ground which may have been there in Coleridge’s time though he makes no mention of it in diaries or letters, but his friend Byron was a fine Cricketer.
Following the visit to Adscombe STC even wrote for Charles Lloyd, the poem, “To a young Friend on his proposing to domesticate with the Author”, by its very nature, autobiographical. Coleridge even wrote a satirical series of parodies on Lloyd’s poems calling himself Nehemiah Higginbotham!
On this trip Poole pointed out a depressed looking small thatched cottage in the village which could perhaps be considered. Each dismissed the idea. Coleridge had originally wanted to stay in Over Stowey but Poole could only arrange the small aforementioned dwelling. Situated in Lime Street, it was then known as “Gillbards” and was a stone’s throw away from Poole’s own house. It was damp, dirty, mouse infested and even haunted! Coleridge in November wrote to Poole anxiously having not heard from Cruikshank. Writing had he been forgotten or refused by “Lord Thing-a-my-Bob”. Such was his anxiety, that he suffered neuralgia as a result. He was prescribed Laudanum and a hot poultice to hold under his ear to control the pain. As it turned out it was the solutions of Opium dissolved in an alcohol solution that was to be his biggest frustration, but initial saviour from dental pain and chronic arthritis. Cruikshank hadn’t forgotten Sam but couldn’t help. Coleridge visited the post office for replies every night, and reluctantly agreed – despite angling for lodgings at another Poole family house in nearby Shurton – to take the small thatched cottage in Lime Street. His young baby, wife and he had to be out of his lodgings in Bristol by Christmas and so instructed Poole to take out a lease for a year. Finally, Sam had come to Stowey.
After a few weeks STC would usually follow a trail at the end of his garden to his friend Tom’s. Poole’s would offer cups of tea with some bread and cheese of an evening and Sam’s favourite dark beer of “Porter” to follow while Coleridge worked away in the calm atmosphere, relieved to be free of his family and infant cries. Poole had secured an income of £40 a year for Sam’s pursuits…a selfless act of typical philanthropy.
Coleridge was as much at home at Poole’s Georgian house as he was his own and Poole’s mother welcomed Mrs Coleridge. Four Elm trees overshadowed Poole’s house and also Coleridge’s humbler dwelling, it was so near. Coleridge wanted to divide his time between mutual labour and “literary occupation”. He thought rustic people led a life of simplicity and innocence which would benefit the bodies and minds of children. He had changed his view when he left in 1800. STC thought it perfect to be eight miles from Bridgwater and so near his friend and advisor, Poole. He would propagate his vegetable garden and live in a self-sufficient way. In a smaller way he could live the way he had wished to live in the Pantisocratic commune. In some ways it was comparable as an alternative way of life to the ones which were very much embraced in the 1960 and 70’s by alternative culture movements, and to a much less extent to this day.
Nether Stowey has a distinctive hill and large green mound called Castle Hill, which remains – possibly nearby houses have remnants of the castle itself but no ruins remain. Certainly the image of a small four room hovel full of smoke and soot, from an open fire that didn’t draw…is an endearing one. Couple this with the muddy pigs in the garden and the endless cries of Coleridge’s young son Hartley and we have a vivid picture. Hartley was Coleridge’s first born and was thus named in honour of the philosopher and pioneer of psychology, David Hartley. Coleridge described him and the younger Berkeley as “Two blooming cherubs”. The small cottage also had a mouse invested interior. Coleridge was far too kind to set any traps, being an animal lover!
On first publication Lyrical Ballad’s was published anonymously and after Coleridge and Wordsworth quarrelled and fell out in 1800 Coleridge’s poems were even edited out of an edition. However, Mariner is the leading poem and is written in a medieval style – harking back to Shakespeare and in a metre much like traditional folk songs. Indeed, many sailors bought the volume by mistake, believing it to be a songbook. Earlier, before STC’s arrival in Nether Stowey, Coleridge’s friendship with Southey had turned sour. As a result the first printed review of Ancient Mariner was a bad one – as it was written by Robert Southey.
The movement Southey and he had tried to pursue called Pantisocracy meant you had to be married and in many ways Coleridge’s subsequent marriage was arranged and hurried – he married Southey’s wife’s sister. What followed was the demise of the Pantisocracy project which no doubt caused even more strain. In many ways they were mismatched. However, Sarah described Coleridge as “my ecstasy” (pronounced as a play on words with his initials-”STC”). They married in Bristol and honeymooned in nearby Clevedon in Somerset. It must have been hard for her to cope in what were poverty conditions. Only a trickle of money from Coleridge’s journalism for the London Morning post could help, though Poole and the precious annuity that helped Coleridge pursue his passions, did help. STC had been in terrible debt from his reckless squandering of money at Cambridge – that had been meant for his tutors.
Delightful to Sam as Dorothy Wordsworth was, (she could be well meaning) Dorothy has been observed by some to be ultimately annoying and tactless toward Sarah. Coleridge was to write two poems “To Asra” (an anagram of Sara) and “Dejection an Ode” (which was written in 1802 in the lakes and reflects Coleridge’s despair at this time and inability to write poetry) and both were dedicated to yet another Sara in in life – Sara Hutchinson. She was William Wordsworth’s wife’s sister, and was a tragic unrequited love. He was infatuated with her but though she had a fondness, the feelings were not mutual. The Dejection piece emphasises his frustration at both his poetry and anger at Hutchinson. How different this is from his happy creative blooming in Nether Stowey. Despite later confusions he never completely left his original principles…some have argued his contemporaries did exactly that – the classic “sell out”. Again, we see parallels with actors, authors, film makers and musicians since world war two. However this idealistic and particularly political aspect seems non-existent in today’s youth culture which seems more Facebook focused and self-absorbed. There seems nothing to “sell out” from in the first place – forgive me, I am being cynical!
Perhaps now we should rewind to his origins once more. Coleridge was very much a West Country man. He is often referred to as a “Lake poet”. This is more to do with being associated with the Lake District school of poets. He was born in 1772 about an hour’s drive away from Nether Stowey, over the Devon border, in Ottery St Mary. Ottery is near Exeter, the latter with its fine uniquely Gothic Cathedral.
Incidentally I made a pilgrimage in recent years to Ottery and actually performed a talk on Coleridge at the “Beautiful Days” music festival. I recited a full rendition of many poems from lyrical ballads, Ancient Mariner in full, and Kubla Khan. It was bizarre to perform such intense words to a passing festival audience at a music festival – but it was fun, even if I was somewhat out of place! Perhaps it is best my acting days are behind me…
Born to a religious preacher of a father, Coleridge was one of ten children but soon became a loner and was teased at school. He did not prefer the company of other boys, and instead lost himself in tales of the Arabian nights, the bible – which he had read by the age of five, and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. He even nearly died after running away from home following a row with his brother over a piece of cheese. The nearby, charmingly named, river Otter (which of course has spawned a local “Otter” beer) could have been his watery grave. He nearly drowned and spent a night in the cold. The man who saved him was eventually, years later, gifted a volume of Coleridge’s poems. This possession now resides at the cottage in Nether Stowey. The cottage also houses an original French ink stand used later in his life in London and also his will. A treasure trove of rare editions is kept under lock and key at the British Museum/Library in London, but the cottage does have a few rare editions and a depiction of Coleridge’s father on a horse. It is the only known picture. As he grew older a love of Shakespeare and Milton began which was to be a passion throughout his life. He excelled at Classics. At the age of 8 his father died suddenly. His father had dreamt one night that he was touched by death, who had come to him, with a dart…the next day he died. This scarred Sam for life and devastated him. For the rest of his life he idolized his father’s memory but had a difficult relationship with his mother. At 11 he was sent to school at Christ’s hospital Charity school in London and fell fowl to the disciplinarian headmaster known as Rev James Bowyer – who caned the young boy regularly for his characteristic free thinking and somewhat endearing outlook on the universe. It was often that the boy would visualize and dream back to the West Country fields as he looked over at the spire of St Pauls Cathedral in the distance. Jesus College Cambridge accepted Samuel, and he was soon revered as a charismatic knowledge on Shakespeare and Metaphysics. Coleridge had a love affair with German philosophy and informed whoever he could of his thoughts. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and poets like Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Klopstock dominated his thoughts, as did the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and musical composer (he wrote seven operas) of the Romantic Movement. His politics influenced the French revolution as well as the development of sociological and educational thought. Later in this article I will write of his similarity and influence to Coleridge.
The Cambridge years were Coleridge’s self-confessed “debouched” ones and in later life Coleridge, rightly or wrongly looked back on his time with prostitutes and excessive use of alcohol and later Opium, much as a modern rock star might reminisce on the decadence of youth. However, his remembrances were consumed by self-destructive guilt. Perhaps he was too honest for his own good. Soon his excess caught up with him and to escape his debts he dropped out and joined the Dragoons – the problem was he couldn’t even ride a horse much to the other soldier’s hilarity. Sam often wrote love sonnets that they could send to their wives so he could remain popular. Coleridge changed his name but kept the same initials – assuming the pseudonym “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache”. STC (as he was often known) cooked up a story of insanity (though some would argue against it being a story!) with his brother, and he was successfully discharged as a result. It was then in 1794 that a resident of Nether Stowey called Tom Poole entered Coleridge’s life. He also met the likes of Robert Southey and became part of a revolutionary clan of free thinkers in Bristol. From a creative and financial point of view meeting Poole was highly significant. Tom was a self-made Tanner and self-educated. He spoke many languages and had a book society founded. Seven years Coleridge’s senior, in modern terms he was a philanthropist. Indeed, to this day every year in Nether Stowey there is a “Woman’s walk” in his honour. Ironically, Poole died a bachelor, but it was his kind deeds for unmarried mothers in the village, along with a fund to help those in need, that is honoured. In the local church a commemorative wall plaque mentions his friends Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth. Certainly Poole’s circle became part of Coleridge’s.
STC became friends with Southey (famous years later for the Goldilocks and the three bears children’s story – derived itself from the traditional German tales), the essayist William Hazlitt and the revolutionary who was even imprisoned for his beliefs in the tower of London – John Thelwall. It was the latter figure that was to contribute to the paranoia about Coleridge whilst he lived in Nether Stowey a few years later. All these rebels were anti-government and pro the French revolution. Indeed, they had a distinctly “left wing” (as we might see it) outlook. Perhaps this was combined with elements of liberalism.
In fact being an author myself and having written two novels regarding German and Norse myths and German esoteric thought (“The Vril Codex” and “The Vril Codex II”) – I find Coleridge’s love of Germany inspirational as a direct influence. Tragically, over a hundred years on from Coleridge’s time, the Nazi’s corrupted such ideas with the “Vril Society” cult – with unbelievable consequences.
Ironically, nearly everyday someone on this planet will use the words “like an albatross around my neck” as signifying guilt or burden. Similarly, “Water, Water everywhere…but not a drop to drink!” will be misquoted as an unattributed testimony to the power of the language. Undoubtedly, when passages are quoted whether knowingly or not – it is right to attribute credit to Coleridge but as stated elsewhere in this piece, Coleridge derived inspiration often from traditional tales such as the wandering Jew, writing a piece called “The Wanderings of Cain” whilst in Stowey, which was described by Wordsworth as a “trifle” in comparison the “Mariner”. Another is the European tale of “The Flying Dutchman” and sailor folklore is littered with stories of a “Ghost Ship” such as the Mary Celeste.
Primo Levi often drew an analogy that he was doomed to walk the earth telling of his experiences in the holocaust. Levi suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the guilt of surviving the Nazi death camp weighed heavily on his conscience and he often likened it to the doomed mariner. Guilt following a disaster – felt by the survivor – is timeless and has been seen with survivors of the September 11th attacks for example. .
Mariner can be seen as a religious poem, a political one, a sociological or psychological exploration, or perhaps from today’s perspective – an ecological environmental poem on appreciating nature and our role within it. Mariner encompasses the psychic and supernatural, spirituality and madness.
It would be wise at this point to reflect that sea travel was rather like a journey into the unknown realms of space and the universe that today’s science fiction depicts, and it is perhaps from this perspective that we understand the mystery the most. Indeed, some have tried to adapt the story to such a purpose. It is moreover, the gothic horror and themes of supernatural possession, demons and the spirit world that haunts you if you read the poem. This was the the moral of respecting nature and possibly “god” or in today’s terms spirituality, even spiritualism. However there is as much a spiritual meaning as a philosophical one, which perhaps stood as a taster for his later writings as a philosopher during his years after travelling Europe – once he had settled in London. Perhaps the range of meanings tell us that Coleridge’s knack as an artist is to do what any great writer or songwriter does. Many observe a religious meaning. His work as a Unitarian preacher in Bridgwater and Taunton whilst at the Stowey cottage was as popular as his radical and admirable hatred of the slave trade. Coleridge had witnessed the bringing of African slaves at the port of Bridgwater and deplored the treatment they endured. He was repelled in the strongest terms.
Bridgwater is now a largely depressed and forgotten town. But once it was one of the most crucial ports and river routes in England. The Bristol Channel was a hub of industry. It had a famous son in Admiral Robert Blake, who fought with Cromwell. It was also the setting of the last major battle on British soil – the “Battle of Sedgemoor” in 1685 which was the culmination of the “Monmouth Rebellion”. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a novel around the events called “Micah Clarke” which is now largely forgotten. More of these facts in future articles…
Still back to matters Coleridge! It was no doubt whilst doing his religious preaching that he met his friend Tom Poole in 1794 preceding his meeting of Wordsworth in 1795. Poole was a patron of the arts, but had humble working class roots. In the maturity of his later years after Stowey, Coleridge put aside his radical view that religious authorities were good for little more than peddling superstition. He was as a young man anti-establishment and as a preacher, in formulating his idea of the church and state for Great Britain; Coleridge claims to have found the best historical example not in English history but in the history of the ancient Hebrew Commonwealth.
The mystery of “Ancient Mariner” invites the reader to project their own meaning, though of course many are intentional or implied. These meanings led to what would be such philosophical works like “Opus Maximum” and “Biographical Literaria”. These huge works were often autobiographical and ahead of their time in these terms. He even had an educational system advocated that bore great similarities to Rousseau and was influential to the Rudolf Steiner system which still exists today – in fact I was a student at a Steiner Waldorf school in Dorset myself from the age of twelve!
The great Psychiatrist Carl Jung claimed to be influenced by Coleridge’s writings on dreams and the subconscious – no doubt through STC’s experiences of dreams since childhood and Opium visions which led to Kubla Khan. Often later writings were lovingly edited and reconstructed by his grown up and devoted daughter – the very talented Sara Coleridge, along with his son Hartley who also wrote poetry. Sara Coleridge was a devoted daughter – after years of separation they became very close toward the end of his life, which was spent in Highgate, London. One moving example of Hartley’s poetry, in tribute of his father- can be seen at Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey. Perhaps he was returning his poem in return for the one his father had written while he laid, a cradled infant, in his father’s arms in “Frost at Midnight”. “Frost” also hints at the insecurities of the political problems with France and parallels in nature. In this poem an owl hoots as the frost “performs its secret ministry”. Here Coleridge is hinting at the secret rules of the universe and outlining an example of a love of nature shared by all romantics. He implies that children were and are naturally closer to nature and that that is how we should be. The implications of this will always be relevant as we struggle with climate change as well as the kind of technology that transmits this piece to you as you read it. Is it all good? Spreading the written word always will be, however, the constituents such as plastics and radiation omissions at unnatural levels – it could be argued – are not. Observing ancient civilisations even current tribes in the Amazon, outline many questions as to a time in the ancient past when man built civilizations which were in harmony with nature rather than at odds with it. I remember seeing the NASA “Moonwalk One” 1970 documentary on the extraordinary moon landings. What I particularly enjoyed was the camera effect of zooming in on microscopic shapes and the same shapes being made by huge star clusters. This was so much more imaginative than a typical historical documentary created today, as it captured the zeitgeist. But this one analogy of the cosmic harmony of nature is exactly the kind of Coleridgean observation of the universe and a grand design that is bigger than all of us. It also remains timeless.
Still, enough of such important matters…soon we will get back to NATURE, but first let’s take a look at what helped form Coleridge’s creative and cultural landscape…
Coleridge and Southey
Robert Southey and STC wrote many plays including “The Fall of Robespierre” (in 1794), which chronicled events in France. He also wrote “Remorse” soon after with its poster proclaiming “Honest Thieves”. Then the melodrama “Osorio” followed. Sadly Coleridge’s plays have not been performed in many years. What a sight the use of ethereal theatrical effects such as “Peppers Ghost” must have left on audiences…Even today we can see that with hologram recreations of music beginning to be all the rage, such exciting optical illusions have always been popular.
Coleridge and Southey decided to found a “new society” in the United States on the Susquehanna River. This plan was called “Pantisocracy”. All members of the clan would be married and have the same amount of land and live on barter, rather than money. In many ways the scheme wasn’t dissimilar to the purest form of communism. Due to the lack of success of the Pantisocracy scheme Coleridge felt a need to escape the cities of London and Bristol. Southey and he had embarked on long walking tours of the roman city of Bath in Somerset and even longer epic expeditions on the Cheddar gorge and caves, also in Somerset.
During this most radical period for Coleridge it is wise to mention the political satire, “The Devil’s Thoughts” which was originally written in 1799 in Nether Stowey, derived from the earlier radical ideas of the Bristol years. It was re-written with Southey and was at one point published under Southey’s own name. The poem was a gift from Coleridge to him, which leads us to an intriguing question – are poems we attribute to particular poets in this wide Romantic circle – written by who we think they are? Byron and Shelley also used “Thoughts” as the basis for poems such as Shelley’s, “The Devil’s Walk” and the “Mask of Anarchy”. It is often strangely, not included in Coleridge collections of poems – due to its later publication both anonymously and as a satirical poem in Robert Southey’s name so I thought it pertinent to include here.
“From his brimstone bed at break of day
A walking the DEVIL is gone,
To visit his little snug farm of the earth
And see how his stock went on.
Over the hill and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he swished his long tail
As a gentleman swishes his cane.
And how then was the Devil drest?
Oh! he was in his Sunday’s best:
His jacket was red and his breeches were blue,
And there was a hole where the tail came through.
He saw a LAWYER killing a Viper
On a dung heap beside his stable,
And the Devil smiled, for it put him in mind
Of Cain and _his_ brother, Abel.
A POTHECARY on a white horse
Rode by on his vocations,
And the Devil thought of his old Friend
DEATH in the Revelations.
He saw a cottage with a double coach-house,
A cottage of gentility!
And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin
Is pride that apes humility.
He went into a rich bookseller’s shop,
Quoth he! we are both of one college,
For I myself sate like a cormorant once
Fast by the tree of knowledge.
Down the river there plied, with wind and tide,
A pig with vast celerity;
And the Devil look’d wise as he saw how the while,
It cut its own throat. ‘There!’ quoth he with a smile,
‘Goes ‘England’s commercial prosperity.”
As he went through Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.
* * * * * *
General ———– burning face
He saw with consternation,
And back to hell his way did he take,
For the Devil thought by a slight mistake
It was general conflagration.
Ironically Pantisocracy had failed due to lack of funds and it is at this stage that Tom Poole steps in, not only as a key lover and socialite of literary circles in Bristol, but also as an instigator of financial help from the Wedgewood family (famous today for their antiques) and even the Sotheby’s (again today famous for antiques…and auctions!).
Coleridge also wrote a political subscription pamphlet which made little money called “The Watchman”. He wrote it whilst at Jesus College Cambridge and later in Bristol. To drum up subscribers he toured the midlands and announced that the aim of the periodical was to;
“That all might know the truth, and that the truth might make us free”.
In fact at his cottage in Nether Stowey a few years’ later copies were used by a maid to light a fire…much to the Coleridge’s horror! He was also hampered by George Burnett who supplied badly written articles which Coleridge had to rewrite and Burnett even failed to send copies to subscribers. Coleridge was earning nothing from poetry. Whilst in Bristol, at this time – Hartley was born. He was a sickly child. Samuel even wondered whether to found a school, and teach in the midlands, his method of education being much like Rudolf Steiner’s mystical esoteric method, begun in the late nineteenth and twentieth century.
Poole was sure of Coleridge’s potential, as a lover of literature himself. Coleridge’s radical paper “The Watchman” seemed doomed to failure so Poole came up with the idea of writing to all of Coleridge’s friends to ask for regular donations to help support Coleridge and to help him pursue his creative pursuits, whilst realizing his full potential. Tom believed in Coleridge’s potential to write something ground-breaking, and believed his friends did too. The first payment arrived the day his “Watchman” project failed once and for all…
Tom Poole is to this day a largely forgotten figure, outside of Coleridge devotees. It is a testament to their friendship and his endless kind help offered that Coleridge kept a letter from Poole in his breast pocket to the end of his life. It begins with “Hail to thee Coleridge!” and is on display at Coleridge Cottage. Poole would declare, “By you Coleridge, I will always stand, in sickness and in health, prosperity and misfortunes”. If only we could all have such a friend. Without his patronage Coleridge wouldn’t have met many crucial figures, nor moved to Nether Stowey where he undoubtedly had his most creative flowering as a poet. This is, in a sense…bizarre. His assistance as Coleridge’s lifelong best friend helped cause what was to be THE pivotal moment in not just romantic literature, but to the whole Romantic Movement, across all the arts. Music (Beethoven in particular – Coleridge’s favourite composer), painting (Turner) and free thinkers throughout the world were touched by the “Lyrical ballads”. Only William Blake can be compared. However Blake deserves a separate appraisal from this, such was his brilliance. Years later Coleridge’s friend Percy Byshe Shelley would joke with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron that none of them could write a poem as frightening as the vampire poem “Christabel” (again, largely written in Stowey), the result was “Frankenstein”.
But my reader, I have jumped somewhat ahead of myself – so let’s take a deep breath!
During the mid/late-1790’s Coleridge continued to hone his poetic craft and it was at this time that he first met William and Dorothy Wordsworth. In 1796 Wordsworth wrote that “I am going to Bristol tomorrow to see those two extraordinary youths Coleridge and Southey”. Coleridge immediately felt he had found creative soul mates. “We were three people, but only one soul”. Indeed, Coleridge would write to Poole of Wordsworth “He is a wonderful man”. In June 1797 STC invited them to be near him in Stowey and soon they were settled two miles from the sea at a house with fine grounds called Alfoxden. For ten months the three were inseparable. Dorothy, then 27 years of age, described of Coleridge that he was rather plain pale and thin with a large mouth, thick lips and rough semi curling black hair and seemed unimportant. But she then describes how as soon as he opened his mouth and words sprang forth that he was enchanting and magically charismatic. Coleridge said of her “If you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her rather ordinary…if you expected to see an ordinary woman you would think her pretty”. She admired his wild talk and large eyes. William described he and Coleridge subsequently as,
“So widely different, that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I could only have been a cog”
They met, not in the north of England in Wordsworth’s home of the Lake District, but in a house William and Dorothy were renting in the West Country at Racedown in Dorset. Come the summer of 1797, Coleridge begun to neglect his wife and his friends Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb. For some time Samuel had been estranged with Robert Southey. Sarah, it has been argued, grew jealous of her husband’s long walks with Dorothy. William’s sister made an invaluable series of journals and diaries along with Coleridge, chronicling events.
Coleridge set his conversation poem of 1797 “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” as a autobiographical account, from a real life incident in his Nether Stowey garden following one morning when his wife accidently dropped boiling milk on his foot. The work has often been referenced by real life prisoners of war or the incarcerated. In the poem because of injury to his foot finds he is unable to accompany his friends on a walk.
Let us enjoy a series of beautiful passages…
“Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense”;
“These beauteous forms,/
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration–feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure”;
Wordsworth, “Knowing that Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her,” prays that nature will
“. . . so inform
The mind within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings”.
“My friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! ’Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chaunt, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music!”
“And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
‘Most musical, most melancholy’ bird!
A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain.
And many a poet echoes the conceit;”
“he had better far have stretched his limbs
Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell,
By sun or moon-light, to the influxes
Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
And of his fame forgetful! so his song
Should share in Nature’s immortality,
A venerable thing! and so his song
Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself
Be loved like Nature!”
Moving on from “The Nightingale” let us now look at the extraordinarily influential “Kubla Khan”. This work is of course something of a “psychedelic” classic – its evocative use of eastern imagery is both homage to Coleridge’s childhood love of the Arabian nights and also his addiction to Opium. Contrary to popular belief he was not addicted to the medication when writing Ancient Mariner and only became addicted to it after that poem – and it was a commonplace prescription by doctors. The same can be said of Wilkie Collins, for example. However perhaps it is this dreamlike poem that has cemented drug taking by Coleridge in people’s minds – along with the fact that, much to STC’s embarrassment – a private letter was published by his Bristol publisher Joseph Cottle in later years. Shelley and Byron were much bigger advocates of recreational use. Coleridge resented and fought against his addiction which makes it all the more unfair that many people that visit his cottage in Nether Stowey to this day associate him with drugs. Another misconception is his marriage. Whilst it is true that is was a strained marriage it was also a pleasant one which was borne out by the responsible way they subsequently separated after leaving Stowey for the lake Disrict to be closer to Wordsworth. However after moving the family to Grasmere in the north, Coleridge began work in Malta in an attempt to help his health in a warmer climate as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Commissioner. Such a conventional position would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.
His attempts to escape Opium reached a crisis point at this time and were a problem until his death. It is surprising how many other poets such as Byron and Shelley died young. It is rather like todays 1960’s and 70’s headlines image of the tragic “young star-tragic artist that died young”. Thomas Chatterton was a much revered poet and medieval forger. He would die young at 18 and be preserved as such forever. In today’s terminology he became an icon for the likes of Coleridge who lived to the ripe old age of sixty one, though battling addiction. He died in Highgate in London under the care of his Doctor, Dr Gillman, in 1834. At the end he was revered as the “Sage of Highgate”.
Coleridge was to influence American thinkers greatly, such as poet and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. His transcendentalism was a direct influence on American New England Transcendentalists and Emerson owed a debt to him. In May, 1796, at twenty four, Coleridge wrote, “I am studying German, and in about six weeks shall be able to read that language with tolerable fluency. Now I have some thoughts of making a proposal to Robinson, the great London bookseller, of translating all the works of Schiller, which would make a portly quarto, on condition that he should pay my journey and my wife’s to and from Jena, a cheap German University where Schiller resides, and allow me two guineas each quarto sheet, which would maintain me. If I could realize this scheme, I should there study chemistry and anatomy, and bring over with me all the works of Semler and Michaelis, the German theologians, and of Kant, the great German metaphysician.” In autumn, 1798, with Wordsworth and his sister, and funded by Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood he sailed to Germany. He was a happy traveller whilst Wordsworth and his companions suffered terrible sea sickness – much to Coleridge’s amusement. There Sam attended the lectures of Eichhorn and Blumenbach and met Tieck. Samuel studied hard, particularly Schelling’s “Philosophy of Nature” and delved deeply into transcendental philosophy and literature. He took ideas that filled his imagination with visions of intellectual discovery.
This leads me to the death of one of Coleridge’s babies…Berkeley – whilst he was in Germany. It also led to his only argument with his friend Tom Poole. Coleridge felt guilt over the infant’s death for ever more. Poole had made light of the child’s illness in a letter, but in truth the child’s death was far from peaceful. Samuel blamed himself for not being in Stowey and it could be argued Sarah blamed him for not being there to support her. However, during the Stowey period Coleridge’s time away in Germany helped formulate further his Mariner vision. Coleridge spent a homesick winter in Germany. Never were his poems set in England more steeped in such a loveliness of England as those written in Germany. On his return he requested to leave the ship at the Bristol Channel on the muddy rocky beach of Shurton Bars. It seems a comically flawed vision – particularly envisioning STC struggling over the hills with his collection of books brought back from Germany. Sadly a nuclear power station today dominates that specific part of the coastline – but further on at Kilve beach – (which Coleridge and Wordsworth often walked to from Holford) we find an unspoilt coast. Thankfully Coleridge was told it wouldn’t be possible to leave ship and sailed on to Bristol, where he made his way back to Stowey. Returning to the power station for a moment, it is interesting to reflect on Coleridge’s poem “Lines written at Shurton Bars” from 1798. The use of the word “Electric” seems sadly ironic – the monolithic testament to science and the modern world now stands in stark contrast to Coleridge and his landscape.
“Tis said, in summer’s evening hour Flashes the golden-colour’d flower A fair electric flame: And so shall flash my love-charg’d eye When all the heart’s big ecstasy Shoots rapid through the frame!”
To this day the last of the traditional fisherman – an old gentleman called Brendan – continues the tradition of catching fish along the mudflats at Shurton. They are the best mudflats in Europe. Brendan was captured in 18th century costume for the 2000 biopic of Coleridge called “Pandaemonium” and some experimental sequences were also filmed of Coleridge himself with Hinkley Point Nuclear Power station in the background as he writhe’s in the mud in torment. Images of “Slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea” (Mariner) enter one’s mind!
One Wordsworth fact which is shrouded in mystery was an epic poem along similar lines to the “Simon Lee – The Old Huntsman” poem. Simon Lee is an incredible account in itself but the story of John Walford – the local charcoal burner who murdered his wife still resonates to this day as a local legend of Nether Stowey. Suffice to say many stories relate the fact that his newly wed was very unfaithful and the subsequent crime of passion led to his hanging near what is known as “Dead Woman’s ditch”. He was left to hang for weeks within the sight of his mother’s cottage. Last year I met a descendant at Coleridge’s cottage. Apparently Walford haunts the area – as a child I thought I caught a sight of him on a school trip to the area one late evening, but put it down to my imagination. Wordsworth wrote an epic poem which it is said was destroyed in the 1920’s by a descendant – being thrown in a fire and forever lost to us. It was thought to be “obscene”. If only it could be discovered…
Mention of the words “Person from Porlock” leads us to the extraordinary tale of why “Kubla Khan” remained “unfinished”. Indeed, the story even lent itself as a literary fable to its imperative use as a part of the plotline to a Douglas Adams “Dirk Gently” novel (Adams is most known for “Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy”). The story goes that Coleridge – on a mammoth walk across the Somerset Quantocks across to Exmoor, took a route that led him from Lynton and Lynmouth to Porlock. This area has far more panoramic climbs and rocky terrain than on the Quantocks, which are more intimate as a range of hills. Porlock has one of the steepest hills in the United Kingdom and it is the steepest main road in England. Having been waylaid and in appalling weather, asked for shelter at Ash farm. One can only wonder at Coleridge’s obvious charisma. Later in life, whilst his poetic powers had long left him, he still was surrounded by all the young romantic artists of the day who flocked to his lectures – even on one instance ignoring Wordsworth on a rare occasion when they were in the same room. On one occasion much like the Khan/Porlock walk, when having similarly miscalculated the enormity of a trip he managed to find board at an old ladies inn who filled the anonymous and friendly STC’s head with tales of these odd revolutionary and dangerous spies Wordsworth and Coleridge…Of course she was in complete ignorance of who her charming boarder was!
Still on that earlier “Kubla Khan” night, in an alcohol induced opium haze he dreamt of “Pleasure domes and caves of ice”…and of “mount abora”…
”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…”
As he awoke from the dream Coleridge furiously scribbled these lines with his quill pen in an attempt to notate from memory this extraordinary, surreal, and subconscious visit to a mythical land. It evokes a kind of eastern paradise like “Atlantis” or “Shangri la”, and ancient accounts of the real Kubla Khan. Many have said Samuel concocted the “person from Porlock” myth to add mystery to the poem. As Coleridge described;
“In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimage:’ ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto: and thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.’ The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his now small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter”
Many have observed that the likelihood of having a 1000 paged account – “Purchas’s Pilgrimage” on a walking expedition to be unrealistic, along with this rare volume being possibly available at a country farmhouse in anticipation of an unexpected literary guest. STC was returning to Nether Stowey and was expected to be there. If on waking from the dream his thoughts of the dream had been disturbed by a messenger from Porlock then it would seem a good reason in itself…but is it possible? If Coleridge had seen a local doctor it is perhaps possible for a message to be given to Coleridge – perhaps from Sarah in Stowey. However given the time of night and circumstances – such as the remote location – it seems unlikely. This mysterious “fragment” as it was named, is an enigmatic and powerful piece given even more added mystery, in terms of what is “missing”. Given the huge length of “Ancient Mariner”, “Khan” is in stark contrast. Although set in Xanadu, it is possible to detect the green, wooded valleys and the fertile Quantocks:
“And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery”
Whatever its genesis – Khan was unique, and was published years later with the help of Byron…but now we must move on. It was truly tragic that the classic gothic vampire tale of “Christabel” remains unfinished – despite later attempts to complete it in the lakes. It is a magnificent story full of Hammer Horror style imagery and Arthurian chivalry. It’s also ahead of its time in its themes of implied lesbianism and demonic possession. The Arthurian imagery no doubt influenced Tennyson. Many view it – along with Mariner – as one of the greatest poems in the English language. It is, like Kubla Khan…an unfinished fragment. It is unlike Kubla Khan, a very epic piece. Though it was started in Stowey, it was written in many places and at different times. Coleridge, in the preface to Kubla Khan in 1816 remembered how Dorothy Wordsworth’s minute observations of natural objects and scenic effects had found their way into the poem. Dorothy walked over one evening to Stowey from Alfoxden in Holford and on her way she noticed that the moon “Was extremely large, the sky scattered over the clouds. These soon closed in, contracting the dimensions of the moon without concealing her”. In the first “state” of the finished Christabel etching Coleridge wrote in the spring of 1798, “Behind the thin Grey cloud that covered but not hid the sky…The round full moon looked small.”
It serves best at this point to dwell a little on the Wordsworth’s three year stay at Alfoxden, which was so sadly cut short by the later “spy” allegations. One feature that remains is the “hidden brook”. The brook whose quiet tune to the sleeping woods, the ancient mariner heard, as the sails made on a pleasant noise till noon, is the brook that;
“runs down from the comb” (as Wordsworth tells us),
“In which stands the village of Alford, through the grounds of Alfoxden”.
It is – “The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, And only speckled by the mid-day sun”, of “This Lime- Tree Bower my Prison”; it is the “brook in mossy forest-dell” in “The Nightingale”, and “the chattering brook” of “The Three Graves”.
John Thelwall wrote home to his wife;
“a wild, romantic dell in these grounds, through which a foaming, rushing, murmuring torrent of water winds its long artless course”.
Indeed, Coleridge planned a poem called “The Brook” which “Should give equal room and freedom for description, incident, and impassioned reflections on men, nature and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream…” Sadly this mighty work never materialized.
Poetry is vital to humanity because no other form of writing captures so succinctly and beautifully at a precise point in history the emotion and thought of a single individual. A great poem embodies the spirit of its age and through its art and beauty transforms that spirit into a universal and eternal engine of thought and feeling. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”” is such a great poem. Without knowing anything of its author or the circumstances under which he wrote it, the poem’s value as a work of art is self-evident. It was at first published anonymously. It radiates a perennial freshness that commands our instant attention, and every time we read it we seem plunged anew into the living mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge and Wordsworth, in their ecstasy over the beauty of the natural world, had partly overlooked the harsher realities that would be evident later on to John Keats. Despite the change in historical circumstances in the late 1790s, there was still a flickering hope that the great ideals of the French Revolution might eventually prevail. The Mariner took us on the strangest voyage of all because Coleridge knew the power of the imagination. The lyrical poems become a historical document or artefact, registering a change in attitude from the previous generation, marking a distinct boundary in the history of human affairs. This resonated and continued with John Keats, Wordsworth’s continued creativity and with Shelley and Byron. It was with Byron of course that Kubla Khan was finally revealed to us – at his insistence- in 1815. It was never part of the Lyrical ballads – though written during that period of 1797- 1800. Yet Coleridge wrote that “fragment” and the Mariner epic at a particular time and in a particular place, and these circumstances shaped the poem, so that it is more than a work of literature. It is also a historical document, and a telling one at that. It defines the Romantic position in the clearest terms. In his “Lyrical Ballads” pieces, STC produced poems which required him to draw on his unique individual perception of the physical world, pulled on his imagination, and on his sense of history. The Ancient Mariner is, as any good poem must be, evidence of its own truth.
Strangely, Coleridge’s contemporaries Southey and Wordsworth – who were much more focused on poetry later in life, became poets laureate’s, but the man who inspired them and was perhaps the greatest of them all was never bestowed the honour. He was charismatic to the end – a man described by William Wordsworth as the “most brilliant man I ever met”. However, many feel he was mistreated by his contemporaries, particularly by Wordsworth after their estrangement, but as young men each had inspired each other and changed literature forever…
There have been references throughout popular culture during the last 200 years…in films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean”, to references in the Basil Rathbone classic “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” film, to “Citizen Kane”. His work on metaphysics and the subconscious dream state, the mind, and the paranormal, influenced Freud and Jung. Yet he was a modest, self-effacing man. Musically, the likes of Electric Light Orchestra and Frankie Goes to Hollywood have paid tribute – but my favorite attempt is “Images of Kubla Khan” composed by Richard Hill and narrated by Ben Kinsgley, which can be found on amazon. It is a sublime piece of Rimsky Korsakov style classical music. I hope it reaches a wider audience – perhaps at the BBC Proms and achieves recognition. Many superb radio adaptations have been broadcast down the years from poetry readings to plays. Some are patchy but others such as “Spynozy and the poets” starring Bill Nighy are superb. It is aired on BBC 7 occasionally. It dramatizes the spy allegations that caused Coleridge to flee Nether Stowey.
The late Ken Russell dramatized Coleridge’s time in Stowey in “Clouds of Glory” – but unlike Julian Temple’s film “Pandemonium” which is freely available – it has languished in the vaults since it was shown on national ITV television in the 1970’s on a prime time Sunday night. It was commissioned by Melvyn Bragg’s “South Bank Show”. It starred David Hemmings as Coleridge and David Warner as Wordsworth. Both look uncannily like their portrayals of Wordsworth and Coleridge. This Granada production was shown in the 1980’s in the US on PBS. From my research I have ascertained that the reason it has never made it to video or DVD is because of problems with the copyright due to the Vaughn Williams soundtrack. Following Ken Russell’s recent death one would hope that this production – which always gets favorable reviews at rare showings at obscure festivals, will be made available. Two films were made “Clouds of Glory – William and Dorothy” and “Clouds of Glory – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.
Julian Temple’s and the BBC’s “Pandemonium” from 2000 needlessly changed the facts such as Hazlitt being behind what Southey actually did such as “The Watchman” and the Pantisocratic scheme. The film gets a mixed response from the “Friends of Coleridge”. The “Friends” are not literal ones I can communicate with from beyond the grave – but are a collection of Coleridge scholars and appreciators who subscribe to a bulletin publication as well as various events and talks on the poet. Personally I found Temple’s film a lot better than I expected, though it is somewhat heavy handed in condemning Wordsworth. Linus Roach, despite not really looking like STC, does a creditable job. Unlike Clouds of Glory which was filmed largely in the Lakes, it was filmed in Somerset and the Quantocks.
Two glorious Mariner animations exist from the 1970’s, and are also available on DVD through Amazon.com, one narrated by Michael Redgrave and the other by the great Orson Welles. The Redgrave animation has a superb documentary on the poet with readings and superb cinematic animations that – despite being from the seventies – are as good, if not better, than any modern attempt could be. The Orson Welles production, created by Raul Da Silva is an American film, which is easily findable on YouTube – both are superb.
Of poetry recordings, I recommend the Richard Burton readings most. Adaptations on the radio of Mariner range from a John Nettles narrated BBC drama with a full cast to a dramatized and freely available, rather fun melodramatic 1940’s American version. The late David Bedford recorded a magnificent musical opus to Ancient Mariner in the seventies with Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells) – it is a curious mix of timeless middle ages inspired mood music, electronica and prog rock – with powerful classical music constant throughout. Bells chime and church organs resonate. Synthesizers make eerie sounds not dissimilar to an instrument Coleridge used in the background to his readings – the “Aeolian harp”. He even named a poem after the instrument. This unusual wind harp produces odd noises as a result of the wind blowing through its strings. It is not played by anyone, but literally plays itself to different strangely produced sounds as the result of the wind. It adds strange drama. Robert Powell reads excerpts superbly. How Coleridge might have laughed at all our categories for music.
It is a shame that none of these – despite my suggestions – are to be found on DVD or CD at Coleridge Cottage – I hope that will change.
At the end of this piece are some photographs of Coleridge Cottage before and after recent work. I volunteered and gave guided tours of the cottage from 2008 to 2011 over four seasons, the last of which was radically different. It was more complicated, yet less of use to anyone, so I moved on. Working a till is less appealing than presenting to the public. Previously, in those three years, I found it both rewarding and difficult. What I enjoyed was informing the public and talking all things Coleridge – whilst answering questions. The custodian – Maggie Roberts – was a superb encyclopedic knowledge on STC. The cottage was full of old books and Victorian musty charm. Sadly it was criminally underfunded and thefts were common. The garden was neglected and closed to the public.
In 2011 a massive grant was finally achieved by the National Trust after years of lobbying – in fact well over 100 years. The “Friends of Coleridge” and people such as myself have been making suggestions for many years. It is perhaps pertinent at this stage to just mention how the Cottage first opened. In 1911 – after twenty years of lobbying the cottage was opened with only one room open to the public. The house had been known as “Gilbards” and was completely changed by those Victorian’s! In the mid nineteenth century the thatched roof was replaced by tiles and the ceiling raised. The cottage was four rooms with a very small kitchen/utility room, and a very small back room upstairs which is now for the first time open to the public – though again, it was altered by the Victorians. The kitchen was too small and obviously the inglenook fireplace (which was uncovered thrillingly for the first time – behind the Victorian one – last autumn) wasn’t suitable to bake bread as Sarah often collected bread freshly baked from the village bakery. After Coleridge’s time the house was extended to include three more rooms and a larger kitchen downstairs and a hallway over part of the garden. Upstairs fours room and a hallway were built which is now open for the first time as exhibition/interpretation space, though none are from Coleridge’s time. In the 1890’s the likes of Oscar Wilde (and later Robert Frost) and various important figures in royalty and literature lobbied to have the cottage opened to the public due to its literary significance. Many felt it was a disgrace that it was a public house. Old photographs of the time show it to be the “Coleridge Cottage Inn”. Certainly the custodian of recent years Maggie Roberts often told me that she would regularly hear a man shouting and the sound of children within the Victorian annex within which she was a resident. So if you are a believer in such things, it is clear that the house is haunted as a result of the Victorian years. The cottage was opened in 1911 with a grand royal ceremony with various celebrities of the day present and even made the national press.
This year I gave up my work at the cottage. It now is a reconstructed and somewhat overblown recreation of what would have been. Sadly the Victorian décor was ripped out. However, Coleridge’s original fireplace – which nobody knew existed – was uncovered. Vital repairs were achieved. Finally the well Coleridge writes of using in his diary was opened along with the garden. The library is adequate but disappointing. Some money spent on clearing copyright for the incredibly rarely seen Ken Russell biopic along with various BBC radio adaptations would have been a welcome addition to a multimedia space. The choice of poetry readings and displays are adequate but unimaginative. Why mention Iron Maiden’s heavy metal rendition of Ancient Mariner but not Fleetwood Mac? The cottage is now missing the former superb custodian (Maggie Roberts) which is a great pity. Missing is the James Gilray satirical cartoon “New Morality” that was on display until last year – albeit only an antique print – it was a good insight into some of the hostility faced by the romantics, even if it be humorous. This piece had been inspired by “To a Young Ass” from the Pantisocracy days of 1794. The poem describes Coleridge’s sympathies for animals and the connection to nature he felt. It was later used as a means to mock him. The venue is too clean – with added rather sanitized reimagining’s of what is a far too opulent kitchen. Tape recordings recur of babies screaming amid 21st century ideas of 18th century lullabies. It all seems well intentioned and fun for children (a toy mice trail to honor the former infestation!) but somewhat fake. The house manager knows little of Coleridge and seems to delegate with little concern for volunteer preferences. Talk of volunteers “dressing up” in period costumes now looms…
The cottage has lost a bit of its quirky old fashioned air and seems too clean and overcrowded. Some exhibits such as a few of the old paintings and Coleridge’s sword for example, remain. Most paintings were copies, the original one of Coleridge’s father and Tom Poole’s portrait of Coleridge as well as an original of STC’s brother remain. This last painting was acquired by noted author Tom Mayberry for the cottage at an auction at Coleridge’s house in Ottery St Mary fifteen years ago. The Rev George Coleridge was the subject of a dedicatory poem and helped Samuel in his need to escape the dragoons. It is apt therefore, for there to be a portrait of him. Sadly, there isn’t enough information on Poole. I would have opened the garden and well – as has been done-– and uncovered the fireplace – these are superb developments – but I wouldn’t have attempted to recreate an 18th century space in a 19th century house. I would have kept the books and placed them in locked glass cases and kept a lot of the Victorian décor that was there before. The cottage was completely altered and extended in Victorian times and it seems futile to try to create a rustic space in 2012. You simply cannot recreate it, so I would have made a compromise between as it was before and as it is now. On the positives, it is twice the size now which is great. However here we have the problem. It was a two up – two down, small cottage. Today it is a middle sized and quiet grand Victorian house which houses a “living exhibit”. By definition it can’t be authentic. Whilst I admire the national Trust’s vision, I feel more time and thought should have been applied. Generally I would say it is better as a venue but not necessarily overall as an experience in comparison with before. Many would agree and/or disagree with me. It can be called a success -with positive results in the media and increased visitor numbers. Speaking personally, I know longer felt “needed” –various wooden beautifully printed information and printed information now suffice to inform the public. Ironically, now the venue is much better funded I find one is less indispensable, as a result.
I miss its modest and learned atmosphere as it was before. Visitors felt short changed – but it very much depended on the visitor. Yes the uninitiated may find it a better experience now but at the cost of that charm? I still cannot make my mind up on that one. Now we have a tea room (with Coleridge’s Old walls whitewashed) but ironically its very dilapidated state before was perhaps its untouched charm. To be able to at last see STC’s garden and particularly his privy is a fabulous new opportunity. Perhaps my love of the man’s work clouds my judgment and I seek perfection – rather like the man himself it was far from perfect before and far too perfect now – but to be in the space he lived and breathed his greatest work will fill you full of inspiration for a lifetime. But you simply cannot be 200 years ago.
Suffice to say I hope you enjoy these pictures and enjoy any visit to the cottage-whether visited in its underfunded state before or in its new incarnation – as a Coleridge devotee you will always find it rewarding.
Firstly, the Majority of these exclusive photos are from the British Library’s short and sensational exhibition in 2011 –this is the only pictorial record in print or online of what I consider to be the best Coleridge exhibition ever – or certainly in my lifetime, and eclipses anything on him I have ever seen – including the cottage. Despite, at the time, being a Coleridge Cottage volunteer and a member of the “Friends of Coleridge”, I discovered this by accident.
Following these are the aforementioned pictures of Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey.