Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poet and Philosopher

The most famous son of Ottery is Samuel Taylor Coleridge the 18th Century poet and philosopher. He was born on 21st October 1772, the youngest of ten children. His parents John and Ann Coleridge had eight other sons and one daughter.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet
Galloway, Ewing
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Being the youngest it was almost inevitable that he was the favourite child of both his parents. He was very unhappy about this and said that "in consequence I was miserable" mainly because it lead to rivalries with his older brothers.

When he was seven years old a dispute with the brother above him in age [Francis Sydercome - Frank to his family] prompted Sam to run at Frank with a knife. Worried that his mother would be angry Coleridge ran out of the house and spent the night in the open air by the side of the River Otter. Many years later his recollection of that night appeared in his poem ’Dejection: An Ode’

'a little child / Upon a lonesome wild, / Not far from home, but she hath lost her way

Just before this in 1778 he joined Ottery Grammar School now The King's School, where his father was headmaster. The death of his father just three years later prompted a change of schools and in 1782 he entered Christ’s Hospital.

He left school in 1791 and entered Jesus College, Cambridge. Three years later he met Robert Southey and became engaged to Sarah Fricker, whom he married in 1795.

After the birth of their first child, Hartley, the Coleridges moved to Nether Stowey in Somerset where Samuel Taylor Coleridge became increasingly friendly with William and Dorothy Wordsworth

Money was often a problem so in 1798 Coleridge accepted an annuity of £150 per year from the Wedgwood brothers Josiah and Tom. This period of his life was the most productive and he wrote his best known poems. Two of the best known are 'The Ancient Mariner' famous for the lines

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink

The plaque [pictured above] on the wall of Ottery St Mary churchyard commemorating the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge also quotes the lines at the end of the 1817 version Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

and 'Kubla Khan' which begins:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round

In 1800 he moved with his wife and family to Keswick in the English Lake District. His family stayed in the Lakes while Coleridge became restless and spent a lot of time travelling alone and with friends.

Scenic view of Englands Lake District with a field of grazing sheep
Scenic view of Englands Lake District with a field of grazing sheep
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The poet was often ill and took increasingly larger doses of opium. Unsurprisingly he became an addict. To cope with his illness he began travelling abroad to warmer climates, first to Malta then to Rome. In Malta he worked as secretary to the Governor.

Beginning in 1808 he gave a series of lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution. Between November 1811 and January 1812 Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave lectures on Shakespeare and Milton. These established his reputation as an outstanding critic of English Literature.

In 1815 after recovering from another serious illness and another move to Wiltshire, he began dictating his Biographia Literaria which was published in 1817 along with the second Lay Sermon and Sibylline Leaves.

In 1816 Dr James Gillman who practised in Highgate near London accepted him as a house patient. Coleridge spent the rest of his life with Dr Gillman and his family until his death on 25th July 1834 at the age of 61. He is buried in Highgate cemetery.

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