Coleridge: At Nether Stowey

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

At Nether Stowey

The Stowey period was the blossoming time of Coleridge's genius. All the poems in this volume except the last four, and besides these "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "Frost at Midnight," and "Fears in Solitude"-the bulk of his achievement in poetry-were either written or begun in 1797 and 1798. It will be proper, then, to dwell a little on his circumstances, his friends, and his ideas during these two years.

The means of livelihood for himself and his family when he went to Stowey were a subscription of about £40 that Poole and some friends got together for him, £20 that Cottle paid for the second edition of the "Poems," the promise of £80 from the father of Charles Lloyd, who was to live with him and study under his direction, and such money as he could earn by reviews and magazine articles, which he estimated at £40 a year; not a munificent provision for a household of three adults and a child. But the theories of the simple life that had made Pantisocracy seem a feasible project still inspired him with confidence. "Sixteen shillings," he wrote to Poole, "would cover all the weekly expenses of my wife, infant, and myself. This I say from my wife's own calculations." Further, he will support himself by the labor of his hands. "If you can instruct me to manage an acre and a half of land, and to raise in it, with my own hands, all kinds of vegetables and grain, enough for myself and my wife and sufficient to feed a pig or two with the refuse, I hope that you will have served me most effectually by placing me out of the necessity of being served." This was in December, just before he moved to Stowey. In February he wrote from his new home to another friend: "From seven till half past eight I work in my garden; from breakfast till twelve I read and compose, then read again, feed the pigs, poultry, etc., till two o'clock; after dinner work again till tea; from tea till supper, review. So jogs the day, and I am happy.... I raise potatoes and all manner of vegetables, have an orchard, and shall raise corn with the spade, enough for my family. We have two pigs, and ducks and geese. A cow would not answer the keep: we have whatever milk we want from T. Poole."

There is a suspicious regularity about this schedule. Lamb wrote from London in January: "Is it a farm that you have got? And what does your worship know about farming?" His agricultural activity, in the month of February, must have been chiefly prospective; and we may safely assume that Poole supplied other things besides milk, and that the poet spent more time reading, dreaming, and talking than he did raising potatoes. A good deal of time must have been spent in the actual composition of his poetry, including his play "Osorio," which was written in 1797, and in studying the landscape beauties of the Quantocks. After the coming of the Wordsworths to Alfoxden he spent much of the time walking between Alfoxden and Stowey, or further afield with Wordsworth and his sister. "My walks," he wrote afterwards, "were almost daily on the top of Quantock, and among its sloping coombs. With my pencil and memorandum-book in my hand, I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding them into verse with the objects and imagery immediately before my eyes." This does not sound much like "raising corn with the spade."

On Sundays he would sometimes preach before such Unitarian congregations, within walking distance, as cared to hear him. But as he would take no pay for his services his preaching contributed nothing toward the support of his family. Lloyd, who was epileptic and subject to moody variation in his attachments, was but an irregular housemate after the first few months, and his contribution to the household expenses was correspondingly uncertain. The future looked so dark in October, 1797, that in spite of misgivings and former scruples he had concluded that he "must become a Unitarian minister, as a less evil than starvation." Accordingly he was in Shrewsbury in January, 1798, preaching in the Unitarian church and on the point of accepting the pastorate at a salary of £150 a year, when the sky brightened in another quarter. Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood, sons of the famous potter and friends of Thomas Poole, offered him an equal sum annually as a free gift. They were wealthy men, well able to afford it; they attached no condition to the gift except that he should devote himself entirely to the study of poetry and philosophy, which was precisely what he wanted to do; and he was not long in determining to accept the offer. "I accepted it," he wrote to Wordsworth while still at Shrewsbury, "on the presumption that I had talents, honesty, and propensities to perseverant effort." The propensities, alas, remained propensities, never acquiring the force of habit. The pension, however, continued to be paid in full until 1812, when Josiah Wedgwood withdrew his half of it. The other half, upon the death of Thomas Wedgwood in 1805, had been secured to Coleridge for life; and this annuity must have constituted the chief reliance of Mrs. Coleridge for many years.

If Coleridge did not prosper financially, he was at least fortunate in his friends; and a man's friends are after all the best testimony to the character of his mind and heart. When he went to Stowey in December, 1796, he was again on good terms with Southey, though the enthusiasm of their first fellowship was gone. The friendship with Lamb, begun in their school-days and renewed at the "Salutation and Cat" in 1794, was maintained by an eager correspondence and by Lamb's visit to Stowey in July, 1797; and although Lloyd's vagaries led to a coolness between the old friends in the following year, the breach was soon healed, and the friendship continued till death. Another with whom Coleridge maintained a voluminous correspondence in 1796-7 was John Thelwall, theoretical democrat, atheist, and admirer of Godwin, whose visit to Coleridge and Wordsworth in the summer of 1797 so shocked the good conservatives of the neighborhood that Wordsworth had to leave Alfoxden in consequence of it. But without doubt the dearest and most influential friend Coleridge had before the Wordsworths came into his life was Thomas Poole. It was in order to be in daily intercourse with Poole that he moved to Stowey; and Poole's hesitation about securing the cottage for him, arising, Coleridge seemed to fear, from imperfect confidence and friendship, was a source of agonized apprehension to the sensitive poet. When we consider that Poole was a self-educated man, a Somersetshire tanner with no claim to literary genius or philosophical acquirements, Coleridge's devotion to him and dependence on him bring out in a strong light the substantial, elemental character of the man. "O Poole!" Coleridge wrote to him from Germany afterwards, "you are a noble heart as ever God made!" Poole had indeed in a marked degree the genius for friendship. Strength of character, sympathy, and self-effacing devotion, combined with prudence and sincerity, made this man a tower of refuge for the unstable spirit of the poet.

No other single relation, however, can compare in importance, for Coleridge's poetic development, with that which sprang up in the summer of 1797 between him and William Wordsworth. Just when they first met is not recorded. We have seen that Coleridge was acquainted with Wordsworth's younger brother in his college days, and discussed with him Wordsworth's first published poems. In January, 1797, he told Cottle that he wished to submit his "Visions of the Maid of Arc" to Wordsworth for criticism. The earliest definite record of their personal acquaintance is a letter Coleridge wrote to Cottle while on a visit to Wordsworth at Racedown (just over the Somerset border in Dorsetshire) early in June. About the beginning of July he is again at Racedown; and when he returns he brings Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy with him for a visit. On the 7th Lamb arrived for his long-planned reunion with Coleridge. The second week of July, 1797, was thus a rich and long-remembered time for all of them, despite the fact that Mrs. Coleridge "accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk" on her husband's foot, which confined him "during the whole time of Charles Lamb's stay." The others took long walks in the neighborhood, amid such scenery as is described in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," a poem that admirably voices the happiness, of those days of spiritual fellowship. The Wordsworths did not return to Racedown. "By a combination of curious circumstances a gentleman's seat, with a park and woods, elegantly and completely furnished,... in the most beautiful and romantic situation by the seaside, four miles from Stowey-this we have got for Wordsworth at the rent of twenty-three pounds a year, taxes included!" Coleridge triumphantly announced to Southey; and in this house, the Manor of Alfoxden, the Wordsworths remained for a year, in daily companionship with Coleridge and surrounded by scenes of natural beauty that have left a lasting mark on the work of both poets.

What the friendship with Coleridge meant to Wordsworth may best be seen in "The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet's Mind," Wordsworth's greatest long poem, written some years afterwards and addressed throughout to Coleridge.

"There is no grief, no sorrow, no despair,
No languor, no dejection, no dismay,
No absence scarcely can there be, for those
Who love as we do."

What Wordsworth was to Coleridge is more important for us here. The admiration which the brilliant child of genius felt for the great preacher-poet is chiefly, one feels, an admiration for his character. As a matter of fact, Wordsworth had written nothing, up to his coming to Alfoxden, that would have preserved his name as a poet, nothing so noteworthy or promising as what Coleridge had already written. But Coleridge felt in this lean and thoughtful young man a strength of mind, a depth and sureness of heart that compelled his allegiance and even imparted, for the time, some of that resolution in which he was by nature so sadly deficient. The character of their friendship is to be seen not only in the published work of the two poets from this time on (notably in "Dejection"), but perhaps even more clearly in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal and in Coleridge's letters. "I speak with heart-felt sincerity," he wrote to Cottle in June, 1797, "and (I think) unblinded judgment, when I tell you that I feel myself a little man by his side, and yet do not think myself the less man than I formerly thought myself.... T. Poole's opinion of Wordsworth is that he is the greatest man he ever knew; I coincide." Wordsworth's influence is evident in a letter from Coleridge to his brother George in April, 1798: "I love fields and woods and mountains with almost a visionary fondness. And because I have found benevolence and quietness growing within me as that fondness has increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others, and to destroy the bad passions not by combating them but by keeping them in inaction." Under the calming and clarifying influence of the stronger Northern spirit the fever of his revolutionary dreams abated, he found happiness in the conscious exercise of his poetic powers, and for one year in his troubled existence his genius showed itself in all its splendor.

The immediate poetic result of their friendship was the "Lyrical Ballads," published by Cottle in September, 1798. The origin of the work has been described both by Wordsworth (in a prefatory note to "We Are Seven") and by Coleridge (in the Biographia Literaria, chap. xiv.). At first, they were to collaborate in writing a poem the proceeds of which should pay the expenses of a little tour they were making when the plan was thought of, in November, 1797; and thus "The Ancient Mariner" was begun. As this poem grew under Coleridge's "shaping-spirit of imagination" Wordsworth saw that he "could only be a clog" upon its progress, and it was resigned to Coleridge. The plan was then enlarged to include a volume illustrating "two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination." Wordsworth was to illustrate the former principle, Coleridge the latter, and the proceeds of the book were to go toward the expenses of a trip to Germany, decided on in the spring of 1798. The bulk of the volume was Wordsworth's, and was typically Wordsworthian, ranging from such simple ballads of humble incident as "Goody Blake" and "The Idiot Boy" to the magnificent blank verse of "Tintern Abbey"; Coleridge's share consisted of a brief poem called "The Nightingale," two short extracts from "Osorio," and "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere."

Apart from the "Lyrical Ballads" Coleridge conceived and finished between June, 1797, and the departure for Germany in 1798, and published in the latter year, "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," "Frost at Midnight," "Fears in Solitude," and "France." He conceived and partly executed, but did not then publish, "Christabel," "Kubla Khan," "Love," "The Ballad of the Dark Ladie," and "The Three Graves." Thus, all Coleridge's best poetry, with the exception of those three saddest of voices out of a broken life, "Dejection" (1802), the lines to Wordsworth on hearing him read "The Prelude" (1807), and "Youth and Age" (1823-32), belongs either wholly or in its inception to the year of his fellowship with the Wordsworths in the Quantock Hills.

Of his political, religious, and literary opinions at this time he has left a fairly adequate account in his published writings and his correspondence, especially in the Biographia Literaria and in the letter to the Rev. George Coleridge referred to above. The first year of his married life saw him still, in spite of the failure of Pantisocracy, an eager visionary reformer upborne by generous enthusiasm and ardent religious feeling. "O! never can I remember those days," he wrote in the Biographia, "with either shame or regret. For I was most sincere, most disinterested! My opinions were indeed in many and most important points erroneous; but my heart was single. Wealth, rank, life itself, then seemed cheap to me, compared with the interest of (what I believed to be) the truth, and the will of my Maker." However much he may have consorted with unbelievers like Thelwall and distressed his good brother George by his heterodoxy, he was by nature deeply religious. He tried in his letters to recover Thelwall from his "atheism," though he heartily approved a sentiment expressed by the latter: "He who thinks and feels will be virtuous; and he who is absorbed in self will be vicious, whatever may be his speculative opinions." Godwin's system of "Justice," with its soulless logic, he abhorred. He preached often in Unitarian churches. To young Hazlitt, who heard him preach in January, 1798, from the text "And He went up into the mountain to pray, Himself, alone," it seemed "as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe." In politics he was, when he went to Stowey, "almost equidistant from all the three prominent parties, the Pittites, the Foxites, and the Democrats"; he was "a vehement anti-ministerialist, but after the invasion of Switzerland, a more vehement anti-Gallican [see the last two stanzas of "France"], and still more intensely an anti-Jacobin." Under Wordsworth's influence his thoughts turned in great measure from contemporary politics to more fundamental matters. Always his poetry had been the utterance of his essential being. "I feel strongly and I think strongly," he wrote to Thelwall in 1796, "but I seldom feel without thinking or think without feeling. Hence, though my poetry has in general a hue of tenderness or passion over it, yet it seldom exhibits unmixed and simple tenderness and passion. My philosophical opinions are blended with or deduced from my feelings." Wordsworth gave his feelings a new object and his philosophy a higher aim. In April of the second year at Stowey, in the letter to his brother already quoted, Coleridge wrote: "I have for some time past withdrawn myself totally from the consideration of immediate causes, which are infinitely complex and uncertain, to muse on fundamental and general causes, the 'causae causarum.' I devote myself to such works as encroach not on the anti-social passions-in poetry, to elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life-in prose to the seeking with patience and a slow, very slow mind, 'Quid sumus, et quidnam victuri gignimus,'-what our faculties are and what they are capable of becoming." This last sentence is a sort of half-prophetic summary of his life's work; but the poetry soon gave way to the prose, and he never again so nearly realized his poetical ideal as he had already done in "The Ancient Mariner."

Of his person and the impression he made upon people at this time there are various contemporary accounts. To Thelwall, in November, 1796, he sent the following description of himself: "... my face, unless when animated by immediate eloquence, expresses great sloth, and great, indeed almost idiotic good-nature. 'Tis a mere carcass of a face; fat, flabby, and expressive chiefly of inexpression. Yet I am told that my eyes, eyebrows, and forehead are physiognomically good; but of this the deponent knoweth not. As to my shape, 'tis a good shape enough if measured, but my gait is awkward, and the walk of the whole man indicates indolence capable of energies.... I cannot breathe through my nose, so my mouth, with sensual thick lips, is almost always open. In conversation I am impassioned, and oppose what I deem error with an eagerness which is often mistaken for personal asperity; but I am ever so swallowed up in the thing said that I forget my opponent. Such am I." The Rev. Leapidge Smith, in his "Reminiscences of an Octogenarian," remembered him as "a tall, dark, handsome young man, with long, black, flowing hair; eyes not merely dark, but black, and keenly penetrating; a fine forehead, a deep-toned, harmonious voice; a manner never to be forgotten, full of life, vivacity, and kindness; dignified in person and, added to all these, exhibiting the elements of his future greatness."[1] Hazlitt, in "My First Acquaintance with Poets" (a paper that every student of Coleridge's life and poetry should read), describing him as he appeared on his visit to Hazlitt's father at Wem in 1798, says: "His complexion was at that time clear, and even bright. His forehead was broad and high, light as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre.... His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin good-humored and round, but his nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing-like what he has done." And Dorothy Wordsworth (to close with a contemporary and sympathetic impression) set him down in her journal after their first meeting at Racedown thus: "He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit.... At first I thought him very plain, that is for about three minutes: he is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish, loose-growing, half-curling, rough black hair. But if you hear him speak for five minutes you think no more of them. His eye is large and full, and not very dark, but grey[2]-such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind; it has more of 'the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling' than I ever witnessed. He has fine dark eyebrows, and an overhanging forehead." The friendly and keen-sighted woman gives a more sympathetic picture than the others; but there must have been truth, too, in the view of the equally keen-sighted and less friendly Hazlitt, whose description accords well with Coleridge's self-portraiture, and in the last sarcastic item, too well, with the remainder of the poet's career.


"Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge," ed. by E.H. Coleridge, Vol. I., p. 180, note.


The uncertainty as to the color of his eyes is a tribute to their expressiveness. Carlyle described him in 1824 as having "a pair of strange brown, timid, yet earnest-looking eyes." Emerson visited him in 1833 and found him "with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion."

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