Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

[Coleridge recalls his childhood.]MY father's sister kept an every-thing shop at Crediton —and there I read through all the gilt-cover little books that could be had at that time, and likewise all the uncovered tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, etc. and etc. etc. etc.—and I used to lie by the wall, and mope—and my spirits used to come upon me suddenly, and in a flood—and then I was accustomed to run up and down the church-yard, and act over all I had been reading on the docks, the nettles, and the rank-grass. At six years old I remember to have read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe, and Philip Quarll— and then I found the Arabian Nights' entertainments—one tale of which (the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin) made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres whenever I was in the dark—and I distinctly remember the anxious and fearful eagerness with which I used to watch the window in which the books lay—and whenever the sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, and bask, and read. My father found out the effect which these books had produced—and burnt them. So I became a dreamer—and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity—and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate, and as I could not play at any thing, and was slothful, I was despised and hated by the boys; and because I could read and spell, and had, I may truly say, a memory and understanding forced into almost an unnatural ripeness, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women— and so I became very vain, and despised most of the boys that were at all near my own age, and before I was eight years old I was a character: sensibility, imagination, vanity, sloth, and feelings of deep and bitter contempt for almost all who traversed the orbit of my understanding were even then prominent and manifest.

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (1956-71), i. 347-348.

AT school I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time a very severe master. ... In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words. Lute, harp, and lyre, muse, muses, and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene were all abominations to him. In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming `Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? Your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!' Nay, certain introductions, similes, and examples were placed by name on a list of interdiction. Among the similes, there was, I remember, that of the Manchineel fruit, as suiting equally well with too many subjects; in which however it yielded the palm at once to the example of Alexander and Clytus, which was equally good and apt, whatever might be the theme. Was it ambition? Alexander and Clytus! Flattery? Alexander and Clytus! Anger? Drunkenness? Pride? Friendship? Ingratitude? Late repentance? Still, still Alexander and Clytus! At length, the praises of agriculture having been exemplified in the sagacious observation that, had Alexander been holding the plough, he would not have run his friend Clytus through with a spear, this tried and serviceable old friend was banished by public edict in secula seculorum.

S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (1907), i. 4-5.

Mr. Coleridge now told us of one of his Cambridge eccentricities, which highly amused us. He said that he had paid his addresses to some young woman (I think, a Mary E—) who rejecting his offer, he took it so much in dudgeon, that he ran away from the University to London, when, in a reckless state of mind, he enlisted himself as a common man in a regiment of horse. No objection having been taken to his height, or age, and being thus accepted, he was asked his name. He had previously determined to give one that was thoroughly Kamschatkian, but having noticed that morning over a door in Lincoln's Inn Fields (or the Temple) the name `Cumberbatch' (not `Comberback'), he thought this word sufficiently outlandish, and replied, `Silas Tomken Cumberbatch', and such was the entry into the regimental book...

Mr. Coleridge, in the midst of all his deficiencies, it appeared, was liked by the men, although he was the butt of the whole company; being esteemed by them as next kin to a natural, though of a peculiar kind—a talking natural. This fancy of theirs was stoutly resisted by the love-sick swain, but the regimental logic prevailed; for whatever they could do, with masterly dexterity, he could not do at all, ergo, must he not be a natural? There was no man in the regiment who met with so many falls from his horse as Silas Tomken Cumberbatch! He often calculated with so little precision his due equilibrium, that, in mounting on one side (perhaps the wrong stirrup), the probability was, especially if his horse moved a little, that he lost his balance, and, if he did not roll back on this side, came down ponderously on the other! when the laugh spread among the men, `Silas is off again!' Mr. C. had often heard of campaigns, but he never before had so correct an idea of hard service.

Some mitigation was now in store for Mr. C. arising out of a whimsical circumstance. He had been placed as a sentinel at the door of a ball-room, or some public place of resort, when two of his officers, passing in, stopped for a moment near Mr. C., talking about Euripides, two lines from whom one of them repeated. At the sound of Greek, the sentinel instinctively turned his ear; when he said, with all deference, touching his lofty cap, `I hope your honour will excuse me, but the lines you have repeated are not quite accurately cited. These are the lines,' when he gave them in their more correct form. `Besides,' said Mr. C., `instead of being in Euripides, the lines will be found in the second antistrophe of the Oedipus of Sophocles: `Why, who the d— are you?' said the officer, `old Faustus grown young again?' `I am only your honour's humble sentinel,' said Mr. C. again touching his cap.

The officers hastened into the room, and inquired of one another about that `odd fish' at the door; when one of the mess (it is believed, the surgeon) told them that he had had his eye upon him, but he would neither tell where he came from, nor anything about his family of the Cumberbatches. `But,' continued he, `instead of being an "odd fish", I suspect he must be a "stray-bird" from the Oxford, or Cambridge aviary.' They learned also the laughable fact that he was bruised all over by frequent falls from his horse. `Ah,' said one of the officers, `we have had, at different times, two or three of these "University birds" in our regiment.' They, however, kindly took pity on the `poor scholar', and had Mr. C. removed to the medical department, where he was appointed `assistant' in the regimental hospital. This change was a vast improvement in Mr. C'.s condition; and happy was the day also on which it took place, for the sake of the sick patients; for Silas Tomken Cumberbatch's amusing stories, they said, did them more good than all the `doctor's physic'! . . .

In one of these interesting conversaziones, when Mr. C. was sitting at the foot of a bed, surrounded by his gaping comrades (who were always solicitous of, and never wearied with, his stories), the door suddenly burst open, and in came two or three gentlemen (his friends), amid the uniform dresses in vain, for some time, looking for their man. At length they pitched on Mr. C., and taking him by the arm, led him in silence out of the room (a picture, indeed, for a Wilkie!). As the supposed deserter passed the threshold, one of the astonished auditors uttered, with a sigh, `Poor Silas! I wish they may let him off with a cool five hundred!' Mr. C.'s ransom being soon adjusted, his friends had the pleasure of placing him, once more, safe in the University....

The inspecting officer of his regiment, on one occasion, was examining the guns of the men, and coming to one piece which was rusty, he called out in an authoritative tone, `Whose rusty gun is this?', when Mr. C. said, `Is it very rusty, sir?' `Yes, Cumberbatch, it is,' said the officer, sternly. `Then, sir,' replied Mr. C., `it must be mine!' The oddity of the reply disarmed the officer, and the `poor scholar' escaped without punishment.

Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections . . .(1837), ii. 54, 56-9, 62-3, 64.

THESE lectures of Mr. Southey were numerously attended, and their composition was greatly admired; exhibiting, as they did, a succinct view of the various subjects commented upon, so as to chain the hearer's attention. They, at the same time, evinced great self-possession in the lecturer; a peculiar grace in the delivery; with reasoning so judicious and acute as to excite astonishment in the auditory, that so young a man should concentrate so rich a fund of valuable matter in lectures comparatively so brief, and which clearly authorized the anticipation of his future eminence.

From this statement it will justly be inferred that no public lecturer could have received stronger proofs of approbation than Mr. Southey from a polite and discriminating audience. Mr. Coleridge now solicited permission of Mr. Southey to deliver his fourth lecture, `On the Rise, Progress, and Decline of the Roman Empire,' as a subject `to which he had devoted much attention.' The request was immediately granted, and, at the end of the third lecture, it was formally announced to the audience that the next lecture would be delivered by `Mr. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of Jesus College, Cambridge.'

At the usual hour the room was thronged. The moment of commencement arrived. No lecturer appeared! Patience was preserved for a quarter, extending to half an hour!—but still no lecturer! At length it was communicated to the impatient assemblage that `a circumstance, exceedingly to be regretted, would prevent Mr. Coleridge from giving his lecture that evening, as intended'. Some few present learned the truth, but the major part of the company retired, not very pleased, and under the impression that Mr. C. had either broken his leg, or that some severe family affliction had occurred. Mr. C. 's rather habitual absence of mind, with the little importance he generally attached to engagements, renders it likely that at this very time he might have been found at No. 48 College Street composedly smoking his pipe, and lost in profound musings on his divine Susquehanna! . . . ,

Wishing to gratify my two young friends (and their ladies elect) with a pleasant excursion, I invited them to accompany me in a visit to the Wye, including Piercefield and Tintern Abbey; objects new to us all. It so happened, the day we were to set off was that immediately following the woeful disappointment, but here all was punctuality.... After dinner, an unpleasant altercation occurred between-no other than the two Pantisocratians! When feelings are accumulated in the heart, the tongue will give them utterance. Mr. Southey, whose regular habits scarcely rendered it a virtue in him never to fail in an engagement, expressed to Mr. Coleridge his deep feelings of regret that his audience should have been disappointed on the preceding evening; reminding him that unless he had determined punctually to fulfil his voluntary engagement, he ought not to have entered upon it. Mr. C. thought the delay of the lecture of little or no consequence. This excited a remonstrance, which produced a reply. At first I interfered with a few conciliatory words, which were unavailing; and these two friends, about to exhibit to the world a glorious example of the effects of concord and sound principles, with an exemption from all the selfish and unsocial passions, fell, alas! into the common lot of humanity, and in so doing must have demonstrated, even to themselves, the rope of sand to which they had confided their destinies!

In unspeakable concern and surprise, I retired to a distant part of the room, and heard with dismay the contention continued, if not extending; for now the two young ladies entered into the dispute (on adverse sides, as might be supposed), each confirming or repelling the arguments of the belligerents. A little cessation in the storm afforded me the opportunity of stepping forward, and remarking that `however much the disappointment was to be regretted, it was an evil not likely again to occur ' (Mr. S. shook his head), and that `the wisest way was to forget the past, and to remember only the pleasant objects before us.' In this opinion the ladies concurred, when, placing a hand of one of the dissentients in that of the other, the hearty salutation went round, and, with our accustomed spirits, we prepared once more for Piercefield and the Abbey.

Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections . . .(1837), i. 38-42.

Coleridge's account of how he wrote `Kubla Khan'.

IN the summer of 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in `Purchas's Pilgrimage':

Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, 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, but, alas! without the restoration of the latter!

Note by Coleridge prefixed to `Kubla Khan', first published in Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep (1816).

In 1797 Coleridge was living with his wife and baby son in a cottage at Nether Stowey, while Wordsworth with his sister Dorothy was staying a few miles away at Alfoxden House, which he had rented furnished since the middle of July. England and France had been at war since 1793, and in 1797 there were widespread fears of a possible French invasion. In the resulting excitement the arrival of two odd strangers at Alfoxden House appears to have aroused suspicion among the local inhabitants; and when Coleridge was visited by John Thelwall, a revolutionary agitator who had been tried on a charge of high treason only three years earlier, suspicion became almost certainty. Acting on information received, the government sent down a detective called Walsh to report on what was going on. The fortunate preservation of some part of the relevant correspondence will show how near the unsuspecting poets came to being arrested.

In Biographia Literaria Coleridge gives his own account of this odd episode, based apparently on what the friendly landlord of The Globe Inn had told him after the government spy had left Nether Stowey. Walsh, it appears, was finally convinced that the whole business was only a case of local gossip.

A. J. Eagleston, `Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Spy', Coleridge Studies, ed. E. Blunden and E. L. Griggs (1934), pp. 80-3
S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. cit. i. 126-9.

Coleridge came to Rose one day early, obviously in great trouble: he sat down without saying a word, and tears even began to flow down his cheeks. Rose inquired earnestly what was the matter—what was weighing upon his mind? but for some time he could get no answer. At last Coleridge told him he was come to consult him about something relating to the conduct of his wife. Rose was startled, yet he could not think that she had been guilty of any serious misconduct, and told him so. Coleridge answered that what she had done, if he yielded to it, would embitter the rest of his life. Rose was alarmed, and besought Coleridge to tranquillize himself, and to tell him what had happened: he hinted a hope that it was nothing affecting her moral character as a wife. `Oh no,' said Coleridge, `nothing of that kind, but it is something that I cannot think of without the deepest pain.'—'Well,' said Rose, `let us hear it: perhaps it is not so bad as you at this moment consider it.'—`I came to you,' added Coleridge, `as a friend and a clergyman, to ask you what I ought under the circumstances to do.'—'Let me have the circumstances,' rejoined Rose, `and then I may be better able to judge. Calm yourself.'

Again Coleridge wiped his `large grey eyes', and went on to apologize for the trouble he was giving. Rose assured him that his main trouble was to see a friend so unhappy; and, after beating about the bush for some time longer, Coleridge declared that he could never live with his wife again, if she were not brought to her senses. Rose here began to fear that Mrs. Coleridge had literally gone out of her mind; but Coleridge reassured him upon that head, adding, however, that a sane woman could hardly have required of her husband what she had expected from him; viz., that on the coldest mornings, even when the snow was on the ground, and icicles hanging from the eves of their cottage, she compelled him to get out of bed in his nightshirt, and light the fire, before she began to dress herself and the baby.

John Payne Collier, An Old Man's Diary, Forty Years Ago (1872), pp. 81-2.

Our host had replenished his sideboard with fine wines from his father's cellars and wine merchants in town; but having, unluckily, forgotten port, a few bottles of black-strap had been obtained for the nonce from the adjacent inn at Highgate; and sooth to say it was not of the first quality. To add to this grievance, the glasses appertaining to the lodgings were of a diminutive capacity, and when they came to be addressed to champagne and hock, were only tolerable and not to be endured. Thus, in the midst of dinner, or rather more towards the close, we were surprised by Hook's rising, and asking us to fill our bumpers to a toast. It was not difficult to fill these glasses, and we were pledged to follow the example of our leader in draining them. In a brief but most entertaining address he described the excellent qualities of Reynolds, and above all his noble capacity for giving rural dinners, but—there was always a but, not a butt of wine, but a but, a something manqué. On this occasion it was but too notorious in the size of those miserable pigmies, out of which we were trying to drink his health etc. etc. etc. The toast was drunk with acclamation, and then followed the exemplary cannikin clink, hob-nobbing, and striking the poor little glasses on the table till every one was broken save one, and that was reserved for a poetical fate.

Tumblers were substituted, and might possibly contribute their share to the early hilarity and consecutive frolic of the night; for ere long Coleridge's sonorous voice was heard declaiming on the extraordinary ebullitions of Hook—`I have before in the course of my time met with men of admirable promptitude of intellectual power and play of wit, which, as Stillingfleet tells,

The rays of with gild whereso'er they strike;

but I never could have conceived such amazing readiness of mind, and resources of genius to be poured out on the mere subject and impulse of the moment.' Having got the poet into this exalted mood, the last of the limited wine-glasses was mounted up on the bottom of a reversed tumbler, and, to the infinite risk of the latter, he was induced to shy at the former with a silver fork, till after two or three throws he succeeded in smashing it into fragments, to be tossed into the basket with its perished brethren.... The exhibition was remembered for years afterwards by all who partook of it; and I have a letter of Lockhart's alluding to the date of our witnessing the roseate face of Coleridge, lit up with animation, his large grey eye beaming, his white hair floating, and his whole frame, as it were, radiating with interest, as he poised the fork in his hand, and launched it at the fragile object (the last glass of dinner) distant some three or four feet from him on the table!

Jerdan, Autobiography, iv. 231-3.

The tragedy of Remorse was written while Coleridge lived with Mr. Morgan, and I believe would never have been completed but for the importunities of Mrs. Morgan. A few days after the appearance of his piece, he was sitting in the coffee-room of a hotel, and heard his name coupled with a coroner's inquest, by a gentleman who was reading a newspaper to a friend. He asked to see the paper, which was handed to him with the remark that `It was very extraordinary that Coleridge the poet should have hanged himself just after the success of his play; but he was always a strange mad fellow. '—'Indeed, sir,' said Coleridge, `it is a most extraordinary thing that he should have hanged himself, be the subject of an inquest, and yet that he should at this moment be speaking to you.' The astonished stranger hoped he had `said nothing to hurt his feelings', and was made easy on that point. The newspaper related that a gentleman in black had been cut down from a tree in Hyde Park, without money or papers in his pockets, his shirt being marked `S. T. Coleridge'; and Coleridge was at no loss to understand how this might have happened, since he seldom travelled without losing a shirt or two.

C. R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections (1860), i. 50-1.

DROVE to Regent's Park; told of Coleridge riding about in a strange shabby dress, with I forget whom, at Keswick, and on some company approaching them, Coleridge offered to fall behind and pass for his companion's servant. `No,' said the other, `I am proud of you as a friend; but, I must say, I should be ashamed of you as a servant'

Moore, journals (4 August 1833), vi. 331.

Coleridge was a marvellous talker. One morning, when Hookham Frere also breakfasted with me, Coleridge talked for three hours without intermission about poetry, and so admirably, that I wish every word he uttered had been written down.

But sometimes his harangues were quite unintelligible, not only to myself, but to others. Wordsworth and I called upon him one forenoon, when he was in a lodging off Pall Mall. He talked uninterruptedly for about two hours, during which Wordsworth listened to him with profound attention, every now and then nodding his head as if in assent. On quitting the lodging, I said to Wordsworth, `Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge's oration: pray, did you understand it?' `Not one syllable of it', was Wordsworth's reply.

Rogers, Table Talk, p. 158.

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