We 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.
Samuel 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.”
Unfortunately, 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’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.
A 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.
The 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’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.
See the National Trust’s website for more about Coleridge’s Cottage.