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LIFE OF SAMUEL TAYLOR
AM grieved,” said Southey, “that you never met
Coleridge. All other men whom I have ever known are mere children to him, and yet all is palsied by a total want of moral strength.” “He is like a lump of coal rich with gas,” said Scott, “which lies expending itself in puffs and gleams, unless some shrewd body will clap it into a cast-iron box, and compel the compressed element to do itself justice." "He is the only person I ever knew, who answered to the idea of a man of genius,” said Hazlitt; "he is the only person from whom I ever learnt anything. His genius had ... angelic wings, and fed on manna. He talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever." "He is,” said De Quincey, “the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive that has yet existed among men.” “Impiety to Shakespeare !” cried Landor; "treason to Milton! I give up all the rest, even Bacon. Certainly, since their day we have had nothing at all comparable with him. Byron and Scott were but as gun-flints to a
granite mountain; Wordsworth has one angle of resemblance.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772, at Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. His father combined the functions of vicar and schoolmaster of his native parish. The vicar had been twice married, and Samuel was the youngest of thirteen children. His mother is described as a homely, house-minding, unimaginative woman, uneducated, out of sympathy with the accomplishments that were fashionable among ladies, resembling Martha in being over careful in many things. Her husband appears to have been a man of simple manners and amiable character, a little eccentric, a little pedantic, a little unmindful of immediate interests. Coleridge used to tell a story which he considered characteristic of both his parents. On one occasion the old gentleman had to take a journey which would keep him from home three or four days. His wife packed his little trunk, and impressed upon him the necessity of putting on a clean shirt every day. He gave the required promise, and set out. On his return it was observed that he had not lost flesh during his absence. In due course his trunk was unpacked, and then it was discovered that all the linen had disappeared. The good man had strictly obeyed his wife's instructions by putting on a clean shirt every day, but had always forgotten to take off the old
It seems to have been a constant habit of this rural clergyman to diversify his discourses with liberal quotations from the Hebrew, which he described as “the immediate language of the Holy Ghost.” His rustic flock appear to have acquired a mysterious reverence for
this kind of teaching, and when the old vicar was gone, they thought lightly of a successor from whom no "immediate language " was ever heard. Recalling the half-conscious pedantry, and less than half-conscious eccentricity, of this gentle, learned, simple-hearted father, Coleridge would compare him with Parson Adams. The comparison was meant in reverence and deep love, and it serves as a key to one side of the poet's own character. In gentleness, in unselfishness, in “other-worldliness,” and even in an amusing indifference to some of the plain issues of life, the vicar and schoolmaster of Ottery St. Mary was not more like Fielding's immortal character than he was like his own famous son.
“I was the last child,” says Coleridge, “the youngest of ten by the same mother, that is to say, John, William (who died in infancy), James, William, Edward, George, Luke, Ann, Francis, and myself, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, beneficially abridged Esteese (Eornos), i.e., S.T.C., and the thirteenth, taking in three sisters by my dear father's first wife-Mary, afterwards Mrs. Bradley; Sarah, who married a seaman, and is lately dead; and Elizabeth, afterwards Mrs. Phillips, who alone was bred up with us after my birth, and whom alone of the three I was wont to think of as a sister, though not exactly, yet I did not know why, the same sort of sister as my sister Nancy.” Before Coleridge came of age, death had made many gaps in this list-five brothers and one sister (the only daughter of his mother) were lost to him. He was delicate as a child, self-absorbed and even morbidly imaginative. There is a story that in his fifth or sixth year, having quarrelled with his brother, and being in dread of a whipping, he stole
away from home and spent the whole of an October night of rain and wind on the banks of the Otter, where he was found at daybreak perished with cold, and without the power of using his limbs. Thrice in later life he disappeared as mysteriously, and in each case he seems to have been under the same morbid impulse. “ Alas ! I had," he says, "all the simplicity, all the docility of the little child, but none of the child's habits. I never thought as a child ; never had the language of a child.” He was first educated under his father at the Free Grammar School, and displayed some precocity. Before he had completed his ninth year the old vicar died. “My most dear, my most revered father died suddenly," he says. “O that I might so pass away if I, like him, were an Israelite without guile.” A few months after the vicar's death, Coleridge was removed, his widowed mother being poor, to the house of a maternal uncle in London. His connection with his native place was then practically at an end. He returned to it in manhood on short visits to one of his brothers, but his interests from his tenth year onwards lay elsewhere. His memory continued to revolve about it very fondly, but his native county had taken more hold of his imagination than of his affections. In one place, he speaks of himself as “transplanted” before his “soul had fixed its first domestic loves,” and as a stranger in his own home and birth-place. In another place, he describes his home-sickness when at school in after years ; his day-dreams of the old church tower, whose bells haunted him even under the preceptor's stern gaze, when his eyes were fixed in mock study on his swimming book. And in yet another place, he says that
so deeply impressed upon his mind are the scenes of his childhood that he can never close his eyes in the sun without seeing afresh the waters of the Otter, its willowy banks, the plank that crossed it, and the sand of varied tints that lay in its bed.
“ Visions of childhood ! oft have ye beguiled
Ah! that once more I were a careless child.”
That his affections were not very closely bound up with his birth-place is sufficiently seen in the fact that, though
most a stranger, most with naked heart,” at Ottery St. Mary, his mother continued to reside there, having made her home in the family of his brother George, who succeeded his father in the double office of vicar and schoolmaster. It is curious that Coleridge alludes to his mother but rarely. I cannot recall an instance of his active interest in her welfare. He seems to have been content to envy his brother the joy of seeing his tottering little ones embracing the aged knees, and climbing the lap at which he lisped his first brief prayer. It is barely conceivable that a boy removed from home in his tenth year is “transplanted” too early to allow his soul to fix the first of all domestic loves.
Coleridge remained three months at the house of his uncle in London, and was then admitted, through the influence of one of his father's old pupils, to Christ's Hospital. A vivid picture of the great charity school as it existed at this period, July, 1782, has been drawn by one of its most famous pupils. The hardships which the boys underwent must have been grievous enough. At all