The boyhood of Ottery's famous poet - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Credit: Books18 (flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
No one person born in Ottery St Mary has ever yet grown up to be as famous as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the most important British poets to have ever lived, Coleridge lived too full a life to describe fully in detail here. So, for now, I’ll just focus on his childhood.
Samuel was born, the tenth of 10 children – although some accounts say he was the youngest of fourteen – in the vicarage of Ottery on October 21, 1772, before the start of the industrial revolution and early in the reign of King George III. He seems to have been a surprise: his father, the Reverend John Coleridge was already 53 and his mother, 45, when “Sam” was born. The new baby reportedly had a shock of black hair and large grey eyes.
His father, who had been born in Crediton, was a man who had achieved much in life and expected his children to do the same. In addition to being the local vicar, he was the headmaster of The King’s School, Ottery St Mary, once attended by Sir Walter Raleigh and, in due course, to be attended by Sam himself. The future poet seems to have been closer to his father than to his mother. “My Father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling – in consequence, I was very miserable,” he later joked. He grew up to be a voracious reader who “took no pleasure in boyish sports'' according to his own account. “I had all the simplicity… of the little child, but none of the child’s habits”, he later wrote. “I never thought as a child, never had the language of a child.”
Then, shortly before his ninth birthday, Samuel’s world was turned upside down by the sudden and wholly unexpected death of his father. In addition to naturally being a great source of upset to Sam, he soon saw his home life utterly transformed. The family moved out of the vicarage and was forced to look around for new sources of income. Many of Sam’s brothers were old enough to already be starting out in their careers, for example in the Army or Navy. But Sam was still just a young boy. His older brother, George, took care of him. Sam declared him, “father, brother and everything.”
He was soon enrolled in Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, a school established to educate the children of the poor. There he would be lonely and sometimes ill. But it was also where he continued to read obsessively and where he first started to write poetry. He wrote poems about many things: about being unwell, about loneliness, about the misfortunes of his own family and about his excitement over the French Revolution which broke out in 1789.
He also made some important friends. It was there he met Charles Lamb, who would later become famous as the author of the book, Tales from Shakespeare written with his sister, Mary and would eventually become, according to one account, "the most lovable figure in English literature." He also became friends with other boys, among them Robert Allen and Tom Evans. It was on a visit to Tom’s home that the by-now-teenaged Sam developed a strong romantic attachment to Tom’s sister, Mary Lamb, who soon became another subject for his poetry. Sam also grew very attached (in a less romantic way) to his friend’s mother and wrote poetry about her too. Although he had mixed feelings about his school days, he did remember his final two years fondly as “the era of poetry and love.”
In 1791, at the age of nineteen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge received a scholarship to attend Jesus College, Cambridge. But, by this point, the story of his boyhood was effectively over. The adult life of one of the nation’s greatest poets had already begun.