Coleridge is a giant of English literature – co-founder of the Romantic revival in the late 18th century – friend, confidant and consultant to William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey and many others. His inspired early work includes the Rime of the Ancient Mariner – which has become one of the most widely read poems in the English language. If you haven’t read this poem, give yourself a quiet half hour and read it now.
Coleridge wrote much more than just the Ancient Mariner – he thought a great deal about the moral and political issues of his day – on slavery, on education, on religion, and many other hotly debated topics, and he wrote about these too.
He was born on 21st October 1772 in the School House, Ottery St Mary, the last of John and Anne Coleridge’s ten children. John Coleridge was vicar of the parish and master of the free grammar school – a relic of the former ecclesiastical College, dissolved in 1545. The youngest Coleridge was a precocious child – a voracious reader – a dreamer – a child old well beyond his years – gifts which set him apart from the rest of the schoolboys, and left him isolated and self absorbed. His father was his principal companion, and Coleridge was probably happiest in Ottery when he could accompany him on pastoral duties around the parish.
When John Coleridge died unexpectedly in 1781, Samuel was shipped off to Christ’s Hospital, a charity school in London. From here he went to Cambridge, which he left without a degree, and then, propelled by a genius that was not readily restrained, he plunged into poetry, politics, lecturing, reading, walking, publishing, family life (of sorts), foreign service, philosophy and European tours, spending his life in transit from one domestic arrangement to another, finally coming to rest (of sorts) with a Highgate physician and his family, who took him in as a permanent house guest in 1816. It was here that he died in 1834, and is buried in Highgate Church.
It has been said that had he died in his early thirties (as most of his friends expected he would when he left for Malta in 1804) Coleridge would be centre-stage among the bright stars of the Romantic revolution – Keats, Shelley and Byron. That would have been an easy story to tell. As it was he lived to a fairly ripe old age (61) and became a celebrity with a controversial and complex reputation, a genius with mystical insights to some – a tedious windbag to others. He remains the brightest star among Devon’s literary progeny, but he is also very much a prophet unsung in his own land.
In Ottery St Mary, we have long talked of “doing something about Coleridge” and this new campaign was begun in November 2009 to establish a memorial to him here in the town, truly worthy of his genius and his contribution to our lives. We conducted a public consultation exercise in February 2010 about what form that memorial might take. The report of that is available here.
The Trust hopes to make the new memorial attractive to visitors and locals alike, and we have longer term plans to link it to other Coleridge places in the UK. But that is for the future. Right now we are looking for resources to pay for the memorial, and we hope that you will want to help us by joining the CMT, buying one of our publications or the Coleridge Commemorative Coin or making a donation. Naturally we shall approach funding institutions for some of the cash we need, but we also need to raise some funds locally and we hope to make the campaign rewarding for anyone who takes part.