Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772, the youngest of ten children of the vicar of Ottery St Mary in Devon. His father died nine years later and from 1782 to 1791 he became a charity scholar at Christ’s Hospital School in the City of London. From there he went to Jesus College, Cambridge where, although a brilliant scholar, he lived a debauched life and squandered his money. Heavily in debt, he enlisted in the army only to be bought out by his brother. Returning to Cambridge, he became keen on walking and set out on a tour of Wales with a fellow undergraduate. They stopped at Oxford on the way, where Coleridge met Robert Southey and formed an idea for a utopian rural commune in America that they called a pantisocracy.

In 1794 Coleridge met Sara, the sister of Southey’s fiancĂ©e, Edith Fricker. At the same time he met Thomas Poole, the young owner of a tannery at Nether Stowey, who was known for his democratic views. Coleridge never finished his degree but went to Bristol to live with the Southey’s for a few months in 1795. The two fell out – Southey becoming frustrated with Coleridge’s dilatoriness while Coleridge felt that marriage had caused Southey to drop his ideals and schemes for the pantisocracy.

Coleridge married Sara Fricker and they left for Clevedon, where he gave political lectures, wrote political magazine articles and published a volume of poetry. This did not provide enough income and in 1796 the Coleridges, complete with son, moved to Nether Stowey, where Thomas Poole gave them a rent free house and paid for their debts. A second volume of verse was published in 1797 by Joseph Cottle of Bristol, who also published Wordsworth’s works. Coleridge and Wordsworth met in the late 1790s. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy later moved to Alfoxden to be near the Coleridges.

Coleridge is best known for his poems Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Others will know him for his opium addiction, expertise on German literature and philosophy and as a philosopher and theologian in his own right.  He was also, however, a great observer of nature, particularly of the weather, the squalls, mists, waterfalls and play of light on water – things which no doubt drew him to Exmoor. He walked almost daily on the Quantocks, making innumerable ‘studies’ in his note book like a painter making sketches to be introduced into later poems. Although he did not write a poem about Exmoor it is clear that ‘studies’ he made on Exmoor appeared in some works.

In the autumn of 1797 Coleridge was in low spirits, unwell and penniless. He was receiving little money from his writing and felt that he may have to become a Unitarian minister, which he felt a 'less evil than starving'. In October he took a 'day or two' off to find the isolation he needed to finish his Osorio. He walked to the Porlock area, home of his maternal ancestors and an area he knew well. He followed a difficult zig-zag path from Porlock Weir to Culbone, climbing through woodland which abounded in 'wild deer, foxes, badgers and martin cats'. There were abundant whortleberries beneath the trees and the sound of the waves breaking below and distant views across to Wales filled him with 'pleasure and astonishment'. Culbone was considered one of Somerset's holy places and was then already frequented by seekers of the romantic.

Coleridge said that he stayed at a farmhouse 'a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church'. This is traditionally reputed to have been Ash Farm. In Coleridge's day Withycombe Farm, demolished in the mid nineteenth century, stood about a third of a mile from the church, at the head of a wooded combe of the same name and on the track to the church. In later life he mentioned that the farm had been called Brimstone. This may have been an allusion to Broomstreet Farm, which is two miles from the church and which he knew from other visits.

The autumn landscape of Culbone inspired him to finish Osorio and, although the play was set in Spain, a passage clearly describes Culbone:

"The hanging woods, that touched by Autumn seem'd

As they were blossoming hues of fire and gold,

The hanging woods, most lovely in decay,

The many clouds, the sea, the rock, the sands,

Lay in the silent moonshine - and the owl,

(Strange, very strange!) the Scritch-owl only wak'd,

Sole voice, sole eye of all that world of beauty!"

During the stay he also started on a poem - Kubla Khan. He had taken three grains of opium to relieve what he called at different times 'a dysentery' or 'a slight indisposition' and in the resulting trance composed two or three hundred lines of poetry 'without any sensation of consciousness of effort'. When he awoke he retained 'a distinct recollection of the whole' and started to write it down. He was interrupted when he was called out by a person on business from Porlock. He was kept from his writing for about an hour and when he returned to it was dismayed to find 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 has been cast...' The story was undoubtedly much embellished later by Coleridge and has been the subject of much debate. The primary source of the poem was Purchas his Pilgrimage, a book written in 1614, which was probably borrowed from Wordsworth and brought on the journey to Culbone. It even contains the line 'In Xanada did Cublai Can build a stately palace.' In the poem, however, the sacred river Alph ran to a ‘sunless sea’ as there is at Culbone, the high cliffs shading the shore. The Culbone area probably also inspired the lines:

"But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!"

At that time Coleridge only took opium occasionally as a medicine. It was not until he lived in the Lake District that he started taking it regularly and became addicted. He shortly returned to the reality of Nether Stowey, where he wrote to his friend John Thelwall that 'I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes - just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more'

Early in November he set out with the Wordsworths to show them the path to Culbone. They walked beyond Culbone to Broomstreet, Yenworthy and Lynmouth. Next day they went to the Valley of Rocks. They decided to jointly write a prose tale The Wanderings of Cain set in the valley. Coleridge turned it into a competition and Wordsworth could not keep up with him, so the story was never finished. Within a week they set out again for Exmoor, agreeing to write jointly a poem to cover the costs of the outing.  Inspiration came from a dream of Coleridge’s neighbour, John Cruickshank, who had had a nightmare about a spectre ship. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was to take Coleridge five months to complete but Wordsworth gave him much of the plot and inspiration was taken from the walk. The harbour from which the mariner set out was undoubtedly Watchet, where they stayed, and the hermit’s woodland home was at Culbone, although it is not clear whether they visited Culbone on this occasion.

In January 1798 he was saved from having to become a Unitarian minister at Shrewsbury by a pension from Tom and Josiah Wedgwood, sons of the famous pottery manufacturer. In March he and Wordsworth had the idea for a collaborative volume of Lyrical Ballads. William Hazlit met Coleridge when he went to preach at Shrewsbury. He stayed with the Coleridges and Wordsworths and is said to have helped inspire some of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. He walked with Coleridge and a local farmer’s son, John Chester, to Lynton.via Culbone and Broomstreet. There Hazlitt, having just read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, recalled the poem by pointing out the bare masts of a ship outlined “against the red-orbed disk of the setting sun. At Lynton he remembered “a thunder storm came on while we were at the inn, and Coleridge was running about bare-headed to enjoy the commotion of the elements... but, as if in spite, the clouds muttered a few angry sounds, and let fall a few refreshing drops.” They went on to look at the Valley of Rocks.

In September 1798 Coleridge went to Germany with the Wordsworths, intending to continue his university education there. He stayed for ten months. The Southeys came to stay at Nether Stowey with the Coleridges in August 1799 and Samuel and Robert patched up their differences. The Southeys moved on to Minehead but, Edith being unwell, Robert continued alone to Exmoor.

In the autumn of 1799 Coleridge went to visit the Wordsworths in County Durham, where they were staying with friend Tom Hutchinson and his three sisters. Samuel fell in love with Sara Hutchinson. He had never really loved Sara Fricker and had not treated her well, which was the cause of a continuing rift with the Southeys. He visited the Lake District with the Wordsworths, then stayed in London to meet publishers. He returned to Nether Stowey briefly in May to look for a house of his own but, having been impressed by the Lake District, moved with his family to Keswick. He returned to visit Tom Poole in 1801 and 1803.

Coleridge’s last visit to Nether Stowey was in 1807, when, estranged from his second wife, he stayed with Tom Poole. His opium addiction was then strong and he wandered aimlessly over the Quantocks for days. Coleridge spent the last 18 years of his life as a patient of a surgeon at Highgate, dying there in 1834 at the age of 61. Two years later Southey returned on a farewell visit to his old West Country haunts, including Nether Stowey and Exmoor.