Coleridge’s Cottage

Coleridge Cottage, visit SomersetWe went to see Coleridge’s Cottage because it was there.  Apart from driving through Bridgwater it wasn’t a painful experience, though I can’t say it was particularly exciting either. However, it does have what the National Trust accurately describes as “a small, but perfectly formed, tearoom” – and that was splendid. Cakes and tea everywhere, plenty to eat and drink – and not a seabird in sight.  Surprisingly, Coleridge’s Cottage in the Somerset village of Nether Stowey is not only a tearoom, but also a place of homage to the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Coleridge nominally lived there with his family between 1796 and 1799.  So it was only briefly Coleridge’s Cottage – for less than 5% of the man’s life, actually.  But he wrote some of his most memorable lines whilst there, arguably even his best work, including the poems ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. Which makes you ponder on the sometimes fleeting nature of genius, doesn’t it?

It also got me thinking about how much time is required before someone’s temporary association with a place becomes permanent.  Coleridge’s Cottage dates from the 1640s and was originally two thatched cottages.  So it was lots of other people’s homes before he rented it, and several more have resided there during the 200+ years since he left.  For a time in the 19th century it was a pub, ‘Moore’s Coleridge Cottage Inn’.  The National Trust acquired the property in 1909 and more recently undertook a major refurbishment to recreate an atmospheric museum that the Coleridge family might recognise as the home they had just stepped out of.  I’m attracted to the business opportunities lurking under the floorboards of property lived in for even a brief period of time by anyone who may one day achieve celebrity status.  The mind boggles at what could be made of some of the hovels many of us have spent the odd week or two in.  And these days, of course, you don’t need to be a genius to be famous. I’m researching preservation orders and blue plaques now, just in case.

Coleridge, where he wrote Ancient MarinerSamuel Coleridge was born in 1772 in Ottery St Mary, Devon, where his father was the vicar.  He was educated at Christ’s Hospital School near Greyfriars in London, and then Jesus College, Cambridge.  He had radical ideas for the time, even lectured on them, and became close friends with fellow odist and future poet laureate, Robert Southey.  Together they planned to found a utopian society, ‘Pantisocracy’ in North America, and were so close that they even married a pair of sisters, Sara and Edith Fricker.  Sadly, though, Southey and Coleridge fell out.  Even more sadly, Coleridge subsequently fell out of love with his wife, Sara, as well.  All seemed fine and dandy at first.  He wrote a wistful and tender poem, ‘The Kiss’, for her and seemed keen enough after marrying in October 1795.

“On Sunday I was married…united to the woman whom I love best of all created Beings …Mrs Coleridge – MRS. COLERIDGE – I like to write the name”.

The couple moved with their baby son, Hartley, to the cottage in Nether Stowey on the last day of 1796.  Apparently, it was an awful place, freezing cold and mouse-infested.  Yet our Sam wrote to a friend:

“ I mean to work very hard – as cook, butler, scullion, shoe cleaner, occasional nurse, gardener, hind pig protector, chaplain, secretary, poet review…I shall keep no servant, and shall cultivate my land acre and my wise-acres as well as I can.”

Coleridge Cottage kitchenUnfortunately, Coleridge’s best domestic intentions seem to have been short-lived.  The accounts I’ve read suggest that the burden of pretty much everything fell upon Sara, while her husband was often unwell, becoming increasingly addicted to laudanum (or pure opium) and, after meeting William Wordsworth in 1797, spending more time with his fellow poet and the latter’s sister Dorothy than with his own family.  Apparently, he found inspiration walking in the Quantocks – presumably during bouts of health.  It’s hard to figure out whether Coleridge was swinging the lead, or genuinely unable to do much other than write a bit.  Perhaps I’m guilty of judging through the lens of the 21st century and that’s simply the way chaps were back then, but from the little I’ve read it is hard to warm to the man.

Still, he certainly produced some good material at Nether Stowey and his association with Wordsworth was momentous.  In 1798 the pair published (anonymously) a joint collection of works, ‘Lyrical Ballads’.  Though 19 of the 23 contributions were written by Wordsworth, Coleridge’s masterpiece, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’, was chosen as the opening offering.  Apparently, there is still debate about whether this seductive, compelling, poem presents an experience of Christian revelation, a nightmarish vision of a chaotic universe; or is a story about a sailor who shoots an albatross.  In any event, those in the know often identify Lyrical Ballads as the start of the English Romantic poetry movement, with flowing, adjective-packed, vivid verse and tales featuring supernatural events and exotic places.

Coleridge cottage bedroomColeridge’s unfinished Kubla Khan is a potent example of the style, literally dreamt up while living at Nether Stowey.  The story of its inspiration and interruption was told by Coleridge himself, when the fragmentary poem was finally published, on the urging of Byron, in 1816.  He had been out walking and stopped off at a farmhouse, traditionally reputed to have been Ash Farm.  Waking from an opium-induced sleep, Coleridge immediately began writing down 2-300 lines he had composed in his dreams concerning the great 13th century Mongolian emperor and his city, Xanadu.  But he was disturbed by a caller at the cottage door – a “person from Porlock” (a nearby village).  When he got back to his writing an hour later, his inspiration “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.”  All we are left with are 54 lines of what might have been.  Surely, everyone can empathise with Coleridge on this one?  I had a similar experience myself once, when a stupor brought on by far too many pints of Old Toejam stimulated an extraordinary vision, alas lost forever because I had to make the tea and go to work.  Only the harshest among us would argue that the person from Porlock could have been ignored, or sent swiftly on their way.  No; it strikes me that Coleridge’s legendary caller was the 18th century equivalent of your mobile going off at an awkward moment, watching ‘East Enders’, or any of the other 101 things that might be a cast-iron excuse for it being impossible to finish doing something.  Or perhaps, given how much attention the alleged intrusion has caused, and brought to the poem, it was a very clever piece of marketing.

Coleridge Cottage wellA more accurate perspective on Coleridge’s Cottage might be to see it as the place where Sara coped with normal life, such as bringing up children, cleaning, washing and cooking, in the 1790s.  The water used for everything was drawn from a 52 feet-deep well in the yard, and is still there.  The sole means of heating water and cooking was an open fire, which was OK for such fare as stews or boiled puddings, but anything requiring baking or roasting had to be taken to the local baker.  The National Trust has done a first-class job of recreating all of this, albeit happily in a much sanitised form.  They have also reconstructed a cute garden, where one of the features is a bower, in summer covered in fragrant jasmine.  This is a nod to another of Coleridge’s compositions. ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, written when Sara, accidentally or otherwise, spilt boiling milk on her husband’s foot, thus preventing him from joining his friends, William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Lamb, on a country ramble.  Instead, he was forced to sit in the garden next door, in a lime-tree bower. Next to the modern reproduction is an audio post, so you can sit and listen to the poem; it’s a nice touch.

This Lime-Tree Bower my PrisonThe Wedgwood brothers, Josiah and Thomas, granted Coleridge an annuity of £150, which enabled  him to visit Germany in 1798 with Wordsworth and Dorothy. While there Coleridge attended lectures at Göttingen.  His second son, Berkeley, was born – and died – while he was away from Sara and Nether Stowey.  Despite a rocky marriage, including the impression from Coleridge that all was not tickety-boo in the marital bed, he and Mrs C somehow managed to have two more children.  This was also despite a distraction on Coleridge’s part because, when he returned from Germany in 1799, he met and fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s future sister-in-law.  Coleridge referred to her by the anagram ‘Asra’ and was besotted with her.  His obsession lasted at least a decade, but possibly stayed with him until he died.  It seems that Asra only ever regarded Samuel as a good friend, however, and his passion was almost certainly unrequited.

Coleridge Cottage gardenColeridge’s Cottage technically became something else on 19 December 1799, when the family left and moved to Keswick to stay with the Wordsworths for a few years.  Coleridge travelled abroad, to Malta and Italy (both of which avoided being renamed).  He returned to England in 1806.  By all accounts, his brain should have been addled by substance abuse, but Coleridge continued to write and established a reputation as a literary critic, translator, philosopher and lecturer. His admirers included Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill and his friend, Charles Lamb.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart failure on 25 July 1834. The last 18 years of his life were spent living as a house patient in the Highgate home of physician, James Gillman.  Gillman tried to treat the opium problem. The house where Coleridge lived for six times longer than he did in his Somerset cottage, and where he died, was not named after him.  However, it was bought by Kate Moss in 2011, so it has had ample time to be known as Kate Moss’s House.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772-1834

See the National Trust’s website for more about Coleridge’s Cottage.

 

50 thoughts on “Coleridge’s Cottage

  1. Dorothy Willis

    The “Romantic Poets” are so often lumped together that it is easy to forget that they were not all of the same generation, background, social class, and not close friends. Wordsworth and Coleridge were friends and so were Byron and Shelley, but Keats was not close to any of them. These men were individual human beings, complete with faults and virtues, and similar only in their ability to write remarkable poetry.

  2. Richard Sutton

    I’m another admirer of Coleridge’s poetry. ‘Frost at Midnight’ is one of my favourites. Thank you for showing the fireplace where that lovely poem was written. A very sad marriage and end to his life – poor Sara Coleridge!

  3. Michelle Ann

    I visited when it first opened to the public, and was overwhelmed to be be in the same room where his wonderful poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ was written. He wrote the poem whilst sitting by the fire on a frosty night, looking after the baby, and thinking how fortunate the baby will be to grow up in such a lovely place. This more than makes up for the fact he wasn’t there very long!

  4. CherryPie

    I too wonder about some of these houses that major on just one part of its history. This history of a famous person that lived there for a short time.

    1. Dorothy Willis

      I think it is a matter of what happened in that place rather than how long the person lived there. For instance, I was once in a place called Virginia City, Nevada, in the US, in the building that had housed the newspaper in the late 1850s. I mentioned to one of the people who worked in the building as a guide to the museum there that I was thinking of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who worked as a reporter on that newspaper in the early 1860s before going on to become a famous writer. Their reaction was to the effect of “Why are you interested in him? He only was here a few months.” Yes, that is so, but those months made an impression on him that lasted throughout his career. They were important months and so are interesting to someone who is interested in him. The work Coleridge did in that cottage was his best, which makes the place of interest to someone interested in his career.

  5. Dorothy Willis

    I enjoyed seeing the photos and reading about how the place is being kept up. You see, I am one of those strange people who IS interested in seeing the place in which “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” were written! I have even read “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison”! Among those who look at it as I do, those poems are enough to make the house a special place.

    I am not going to bother defending Coleridge’s personal life, but I will say I think he would be amused at being considered a “bounder.” It is always fun to look back at historical figures and giggle at their flaws.

    Finally, I think it should be made clear that Coleridge did not start to take opium for fun. (There were those people then — as there are now — who do.) He was in terrible pain and there was literally no other way to get relief. I have never read any indication that he enjoyed it.

  6. marmeladegypsy

    Interesting, Mike. I don’t know much about Coleridge. I’m sure I’ve read Kubla Khan sometime in life and who knows what else. But it all escapes me now. He does sound like a bit of a rounder, though!

  7. Lisa G.

    When you mentioned his desire for a utopian society, I thought of Louisa May Alcott’s father, Emerson, et. al., of course. But, in the U.S.! That’s surprising. I wonder why here. Anyway, it seems like the artistic temperament tends to daydreaming and a utopian bent. Very interesting, Mike! (Sometimes after learning more details about these famous folks from the past can be off-putting, can’t it?)

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      My mum used to hate it when an alternative, often gritty, view was offered about people she admired! I guess the young Coleridge may well have seen the New World as an exotic place – as it was, in many ways; ideal for a new Utopia?!

      1. Dorothy Willis

        Founding a Utopian community was a rather “in” thing about that time. I always remember what Louisa May Alcott’s mother said to a visitor to Fruitlands (the name of the community the Alcotts were involved with) who said, “I hear you have done away with beasts of burden.” “O, no,” returned Mrs. Alcott, “they have me.”

          1. Dorothy Willis

            Thomas More, 1516. The joke is that the word means “Nowhere,” implying utopia is impossible!

  8. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – tongue in cheek feedback on Coleridge … how they managed to down so much laudanum amazes me and still write – still they had their own way at doing things … as the women kept the home fires burning and household chores at bay. The cottage looks very picturesque – but hauling water up 52′ sounds rather tough. Cheers Hilary

  9. Cynthia

    Like so many of the old poets, Coleridge must have had some kind of charisma to keep all these folks taking care of him and excusing his faults. Turning out a pretty phrase doesn’t get you the same today!

  10. franklparker

    Maybe they should ore accurately be caled UNromantic poets! Your description of the creation of Kubla Khan reminded me of a recent launch I hosted for a local poet. He has become interested in surrealism and claiims that he starves himself, listens to several hours of jazz then begins automatic writing. I won’t offer a sample of the result.

  11. John at By Stargoose and Hanglands

    When I read the title of this post it crossed my mind that it should have been called “Sara Coleridge’s Cottage”, so I’m glad you brought out the truth of the situation. The reason I know this is because I’ve recently read “The Making Of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels” by Adam Nicholson (now known as “The Making of Poetry: Shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award 2019” apparently). Wordsworth himself lived far longer at Rydal Mount than he did at Dove Cottage. And Rupert Brooke was merely a lodger at The Old Vicarage in Grantchester for a few months and quite probably never paid the rent! Jeffrey Archer has now lived their for years (with some time elsewhere for well-publicised reasons). Perhaps one day it will be known as Dame Mary Archer’s Old Vicarage.

  12. Marge

    The experience may not have been exciting but you sure make it interesting. I do feel for poor Sara. I so enjoy your humor.

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    I love this post. There were very talented people who became famous in literature, music, arts, science, sport etc who turned out to be cruds at home. Some were violent to their wives, neglected their children, took drugs, stole intellectual property etc etc.

    Coleridge was far from unique in his era, but I don’t like him anyhow.

  14. Helen Devries

    Ah, Private Cumberbach, Browning’s lost leader. Such an unattractive person.
    At least the cakes and ale..oh well, tea… were good.
    Poor Sara, having to live with the Wordsworths while her husband panted after Dorothy.

  15. tidalscribe

    That made me laugh. I don’t think any romantic poets were easy to live with ( mostly they werent there anyway ), we girls are better off with a chap who can do a few jobs around the house and cook! But I do love the yellow and green exterior of the cottage.

  16. Nancy Ott

    Thank you for this post; not only did I learn about Coleridge’s cottage, but I had a good chuckle, as well.

  17. dinahmow

    Laudnum was the drug-of–the-day, back then. Reading some of their stuff makes my eyes roll back!
    But you had tea and cakes, so that’s good. 🙂

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