Coleridge: The Beginnings

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Beginnings

Coleridge lived in what may safely be called the most momentous period of modern history. In the year following his birth Warren Hastings was appointed first governor-general of India, where he maintained English empire during years of war with rival nations, and where he committed those acts of cruelty and tyranny which called forth the greatest eloquence of the greatest of English orators, in the famous impeachment trial at Westminster, when Coleridge was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy in London. A few years before his birth the liberal philosophy of France had found a popular voice in the writings of Rousseau, which became the gospel of revolution throughout Europe in Coleridge's youth and early manhood. "The New Héloise" in the field of sentiment and of the relation of the sexes, "The Social Contract" In political theory, and "Émile" in matters of education, were books whose influence upon Coleridge's generation it would be hard to estimate. When Coleridge was four years old the English colonies in America declared their independence and founded a new nation upon the natural rights of man,-a nation that has grown to be the mightiest and most beneficent on the globe. Coleridge was seventeen when the French Revolution broke out; he was forty-three when Napoleon was sent to St. Helena. He saw the whole career of the greatest political upheaval and of the greatest military genius of the modern world. Fox, Pitt, and Burke,-the greatest Liberal orator, the greatest Parliamentary leader, and the greatest philosophic statesman that England has produced-were at the height of their glory when Coleridge went up to Cambridge in 1791.

In literature-naturally, since literature is but an interpretation of life-the age was not less remarkable. Dr. Johnson was still alive when Coleridge came up to school at Christ's Hospital, Goldsmith had died eight years before. But a new spirit was abroad in the younger generation. Macpherson's "Fingal," alleged to be a translation from the ancient Gaelic poet Ossian, had appeared in 1760; Thomas Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry," a collection of folk-ballads and rude verse-romances such as the common people cherished but critics had long refused to consider as poetry, was published in 1765. These two books were of prime importance in fostering a new taste in literature,-a love of natural beauty, of simplicity, and of rude strength. The new taste hailed with delight the appearance of a native lyric genius in Burns, whose first volume of poems was printed in 1786. It welcomed also the homely, simple sweetness, what Coleridge and Lamb called the "divine chit-chat," of Cowper, whose "Task" appeared in the preceding year. But it was in Coleridge himself and his close contemporaries and followers that the splendor of the new poetry showed itself. He was two years younger than Wordsworth, a year younger than Scott; he was sixteen at the birth of Byron, twenty at that of Shelley, twenty-four at that of Keats; and he outlived all of them except Wordsworth. His genius blossomed early. "The Ancient Mariner," his greatest poem, was published some years before Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality" was written, or Scott's "Lay of the Last Minstrel." He was in the prime of life, or what should have been the prime of life-forty years old-when Byron burst into sudden fame with the first two cantos of "Childe Harold" in 1812; he was forty-six when Keats published "Endymion"; he was fifty-one when Shelley was drowned. And of all this gifted company Coleridge, though not the strongest character or the most prolific poet, was the profoundest intellect and the most originative poetic spirit.

There was little hint, however, of future greatness or of fellowship with great names in his birth and early circumstances. His father was a country clergyman and schoolmaster in the village of Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire, a simple-hearted unworldly man, full of curious learning and not very attentive to practical affairs. His mother managed the household and brought up the children. Both his parents were of simple West-country stock; but his father, having a natural turn for study and having done well in his early manhood as a schoolmaster, went at the age of thirty-one as a sizar, or poor student, to Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, took orders, and was afterwards given the living of Ottery St. Mary. Here he continued his beloved work of teaching, in addition to his pastoral duties, and by means of this combination won the humble livelihood which, through his wife's careful economy, sufficed for rearing his large family. Coleridge tells us that his father "had so little of parental ambition in him that he had destined his children to be blacksmiths, etc." (though he had "resolved that I should be a parson"), "and had accomplished his intention but for my mother's pride and spirit of aggrandizing her family." Several of the children rewarded their mother's care by distinguishing themselves in a modest way in the army or in the church, but the only one about whom the world is curious now was the youngest of the ten, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was born at Ottery St. Mary, October 21, 1772.

The essential traits of his later character appeared in his early childhood. Almost from infancy he lived in his imagination rather than in the world of reality. "The schoolboys drove me from play, and were always tormenting me, and hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports, but read incessantly.... I became a dreamer, and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity; and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate." "Sensibility, imagination, vanity, sloth," were "prominent and manifest" in his character before he was eight years old. Such is his own account of his childhood, written to his friend Poole in 1797; and it is an accurate description, as far as it goes, of the grown man. But of the religious temper, too, the love of freedom and of virtue, the hatred of injustice, cruelty, and falsehood that guided his uneven steps through all the pitiful struggle of his middle life, of the conscience that made his weakness hell to him-of these, too, we may be sure that the beginnings were to be seen in the boy at Ottery St. Mary, as indeed they were before his eyes in the person of his father, who, if not a first-rate genius, was, says his son, "a first-rate Christian."

The good vicar died in 1781; and the next year, a "presentation" to Christ's Hospital having been secured for him, little Samuel, not yet eleven years old, went up to London to enter the famous old city school. Here,

"In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,"

where he

"Saw nought lovely but the sky and stars,"

one of some seven hundred Blue-Coat boys, Coleridge lived for nine years.

Most of the boys at Christ's Hospital, then as now, were given a "commercial" education (which none the less included a very thorough training in Latin); but a few of the most promising students were each year selected by the masters for a classical training in preparation for the universities, whence they were known as Grecians. Coleridge was elected a Grecian in 1788. The famous Boyer-famous for his enthusiasm alike in teaching the classics and in wielding the birch-laid the foundation of Coleridge's later scholarship. Here, too, Coleridge did a great amount of reading not laid down in the curriculum,-Latin and Greek poetry and philosophy, mediaeval science and metaphysics-and won the approval of his teachers by the excellence of his verses in Greek and Latin, such as boys at school and students at the universities were expected to write in those days. In the great city school, as in the Devonshire vicarage, he lived in the imagination, inert of body and rapacious of intellect; but he was solitary no longer, having found his tongue and among his more intellectual schoolfellows an interested audience. While yet a boy, he would hold an audience spellbound by his eloquent declamation or the fervor of his argument till, as Lamb, who was one of his hearers, tells us, "the walls of the old Grey Friars re-echoed to the accents of the inspired charity boy!" That is the way his conversation,-or monologue, as it often was,-affected not boys only, but men, and especially young men, to his dying day. He cast a spell upon men by his speech; upon his schoolfellows, upon young men at the universities in the Pantisocracy days, upon Lloyd and Poole at Nether Stowey, upon earnest young thinkers in his last days at Highgate; so that even if he had never written "The Ancient Mariner" and the Biographia, Literaria he would still be remembered for the inspiration of his talk.

Further details of the life at Christ's Hospital must be sought in Lamb's two essays, especially that on "Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago." In 1791, having secured a Christ's Hospital "exhibition," he entered Jesus College, Cambridge.

His university life extended over three years, from October, 1791, to December, 1794. It was an unhappy time for him and an uneasy time for his respectable relatives, for reasons that were partly in his own nature and partly in the temper of the times.

Even Boyer's severe training, while it had made him a hard student and an unusual scholar for his years, had failed to give him what he most needed as a balance to his intellect and imagination, stability of character. There is evidence that after the first few months, during which the habits of his hard school life had not yet broken, the new liberty of university life led him into extravagance, if not dissipation. Work he doubtless did (he won the Browne medal for a Greek ode on the slave-trade in 1792), but fitfully, giving less and less attention to his regular studies and more to conviviality and, above all, to dreams of literary fame. He wrote verses after various models, sentimental, fanciful, or gallant; he was enthusiastic in praise of a contemporary sonneteer, the Rev. William Bowles, whose "divine sensibility" seemed to him the height of poetic feeling; and in connection with Wordsworth's younger brother Christopher, who entered Cambridge in 1793, he formed a literary society that discussed, among other things, Wordsworth's volume of early poetry, "Descriptive Sketches," published in that year. Wordsworth himself was a Cambridge man, but had taken his degree in 1791 and gone abroad, so that the two men whose personal friendship was to mean so much in English poetry did not meet until 1796. Already in 1793, however, Coleridge had developed political theories, or rather sympathies, which were preparing him for fellowship with Wordsworth.

The French Revolution, which, after years of preparation, took concrete shape in 1789, did not look to young Englishmen in 1791-4 as it looks to us now, nor even as it was to look to those same Englishmen in 1800. In those first years warm-hearted young enthusiasts at the universities saw in the violence of their fellow-men across the Channel only the struggles of the beautiful Spirit of Liberty bursting the chains of age-long tyranny and corruption and calling men up to the heights to breathe diviner air.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!"

wrote Wordsworth afterwards; and in the glow of his young idealism he had gone over to France in the autumn of 1791 and was on the point of throwing in his lot with the revolutionists, when his parents compelled his return by cutting off his supplies. And many who, like Coleridge, merely watched from afar shared his faith that a new order of things was to be established, wherein Love should be Law and man's inhumanity to man become but a memory of things outworn.

Less generous men, with a selfish interest in established privileges; timid men, who looked with terror upon any prospect of change; older and wiser men, who better understood the foundations of social order and the nature of man-all these looked with distrust upon the revolutionary idealism that was spreading from France through the younger generation of Englishmen. The new notions of liberty, it was felt, threatened not only the vested rights of property and the prescriptions of rank, but the Church, too, and religion. Some of the would-be reformers were avowed atheists; some (Coleridge and his friends, for instance, in the Pantisocracy period) were communists. In general, they ascribed all the evils of society to "institutions," and wanted them abolished.

Just how far Coleridge had gone in this direction by the autumn of 1793 we do not know; far enough at least to disturb his view of the future, to worry his elder brother George, a clergyman and school-teacher, who had in some measure filled a father's place to the young genius, and, most important of all, to alarm and distress a gentle girl in London. For before he left Christ's Hospital for Cambridge he had become intimate at the house of a Mrs. Evans, and most of the letters preserved from his first two years at the University were addressed to her or to one of her two daughters, Anne and Mary. With the latter Coleridge was in love; and that she had some regard for him is apparent from a letter she sent him in 1794. Before that, however, Coleridge had taken a step that seemed likely to close at once his college career and his prospects of literary fame. The reasons have not been recorded: probably pecuniary embarrassment, the yeasty state of his religious and political ideas, and impatience or despondency over his love-affair with Mary Evans, combined to precipitate his flight; what we know is that he ran away from Cambridge and in December, 1793, enlisted as a dragoon in the army.

Coleridge had hardly taken the step before he repented of it. His letters to his brother George, who with other friends bestirred himself for Coleridge's release as soon as his whereabouts was discovered, are rather distressing in their self-abasement. The efforts of his friends were successful and in April he returned to the University, where a public admonition was the extent of his punishment, and he continued in receipt of his Christ's Hospital exhibition.

But Coleridge's college days were practically over. He was now nearly twenty-two years old, and the revolutionary unrest which had doubtless contributed to his first escapade soon resulted in the formation of schemes that took him away from Cambridge for good and all. In June, 1794, he made a visit to an old schoolfellow at Oxford. Here he met Robert Southey of Balliol College. A friendship sprang up between them out of which, before the end of the summer, grew the Utopian scheme of Pantisocracy. A company of gentlemen and ladies were to emigrate to America, take up lands in the Susquehanna valley, and there establish an ideal community in which all should bear rule equally and find happiness in a life of justice, labor, and love. The education of the young in the principles of ideal humanity was an important part of the scheme. We are reminded of the Brook Farm experiment in New England a generation later, which bears a daughter's likeness to Pantisocracy, the chief difference being that the New England enthusiasts were mature men and women and really put the idea into practice, whereas the Pantisocrats were for the most part collegians and never got beyond the stage of talking and writing about their plans. The scheme was further elaborated at Bristol, where Coleridge, returning from a vacation tour in Wales, again met Southey, and at Bath, the home of Southey and of Southey's betrothed and her sister, Edith and Sarah Fricker-"two sisters, milliners of Bath," as Byron contemptuously called them.

To the other sister, Sarah, Coleridge rather precipitately engaged himself. His love for Mary Evans was not dead, but he seems to have despaired of winning her and to have determined, by uniting himself domestically with Southey and his friends, to make retreat from their communistic scheme impossible. A few weeks later he is back at Cambridge, tortured apparently between his old love and his new engagement. Mary Evans has written to him deploring his wild notions and the mad plan of Pantisocracy, yet confident that he has "too much sensibility to be an infidel." Southey has reproved him rather sharply for failing to write to his betrothed at Bath. Our next glimpse of him is at London, discussing poetry and philosophy with Lamb at the "Salutation and Cat" tavern and perhaps trying to get a sight of Mary Evans. In December he is again at Bristol, in lively correspondence with Southey about democracy, Pantisocracy, and poetry, but at the same time he addresses a last appeal to Miss Evans. Her answer is kind, but final; that chapter is closed, and Coleridge writes to Southey that he will "do his duty," by which he means apparently that he will be faithful to Pantisocracy and marry Sarah Fricker.

The Pantisocracy scheme could not in the nature of things be long-lived. As a matter of fact it lasted little more than a year, ending in a rupture between the two leading spirits just when they became brothers-in-law. Coleridge spent the summer of 1795 in Bristol in company with Southey, writing and lecturing. In October he was married to Sarah Fricker in "St. Mary's Redcliff, poor Chatterton's church." In November Southey married Edith Fricker and set sail for Lisbon, where his uncle was the English chaplain; and Pantisocracy was dead.

The break with Southey was the natural result of attempting to force through a scheme impracticable in itself and doubly impracticable for the men who conceived it. Its collapse did not altogether sever their literary relations. The collaboration begun in "The Fall of Robespierre" (Cambridge, 1794) was continued in Southey's "Joan of Arc" (1796), to which Coleridge contributed the part afterwards printed (with some additions) as "The Destiny of Nations," and in Coleridge's first volume of "Poems" (Bristol, 1796). A more important contributor to this volume, however, was Charles Lamb, whose initials were appended to four of the pieces. A second edition appeared in June, 1797, with eleven additions from Coleridge besides verses by Lamb and Charles Lloyd, all under the title: "Poems by S.T. Coleridge. Second Edition. To which are added Poems by Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd." The publisher of both editions was Joseph Cottle, a bookseller of Bristol, who played the part of provincial Murray to the young poets in these years.

Meanwhile Coleridge, after a period of lecturing and projecting, had as we have seen married Sarah Fricker, with whom he was now very much in love, and had begun housekeeping in a cottage at Clevedon near the Bristol Channel. The beauty of the place and his happiness there are celebrated in "The Aeolian Harp" and "Reflections on Leaving a Place of Retirement" (better known by its opening words, "Low was our pretty cot"). His next residence was in Bristol-rather a base of operations than a home, for Coleridge was on the road much of the time, lecturing, preaching, soliciting subscriptions for his political and philosophical paper "The Watchman" (which ran from March to May, 1796), and trying in various other ways to provide for his family, which was increased by the birth of a son in September, 1796. At last in December he secured the little cottage at Nether Stowey in the Quantock Hills (south of the Bristol Channel, in Somerset), close to the house of his beloved friend, Thomas Poole, where he lived until his departure for Germany in September, 1798.

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