READING AND PLAYING: Coleridge in Ottery
A talk given by Graham Davidson at the Coleridge Anniversary Lunch in 2009
I’ll begin on what I hope is a non-controversial note: Ottery is a lovely town―this is only my third visit, but the place is growing on me, nestling into its little hollows, homely, friendly, and the collegiate church on the hill still symbolizing a light not to be hidden. Ottery is a place to feel settled in, or to settle into―Chris told me that the happiest here are those who have lived here longest. It is of course different from Coleridge’s day, but not so different, not so changed as to be unrecognizeable; we can still feel the continuity between then, the late 1770s when Coleridge was a child here, and now, nearly some 250 years later. We, of a certain age, like that sense of continuity. We can still wander down through the fields, along the side of the Otter and look into the Pixies Parlour, and though the initials that Coleridge and his brothers carved into the rocks have gone, others have taken their place. There, in 1793, Coleridge led a troop of young ladies, and wrote a poem pretending he was the prince of pixies, welcoming them to his cell, and crowning one of them, a certain Miss Boutflour, or Beaufleur, the Fairy Queen―and Coleridge, being something of a playful flirt, noticed the rather still, quiet presence of this girl, her ‘white-rob’d Purity of Soul’ as he called it, and was determined to warm her up a bit, and as the last line of the poem says, ‘Extract a Blush for Love!’ History doesn’t tell us whether he succeeded, but he was just down from Cambridge, where he had taken to drinking and womanizing with a kind of guilty gusto, so he wasn’t very likely to have taken No for an answer.
Ottery is a place to be happy in. The household into which Samuel Taylor was born consisted of up to a dozen people, mostly older brothers, coming and going at different times. It was a household under various and considerable pressures―his parents also ran a boarding school for some twenty boys―but his mother was a great manager, and it is unlikely that he, the youngest child, noticed these pressures unduly. For his first nine years Coleridge lived in circumstances that were as normal as normal ever is. He had a mother and a father at home, an older half-sister, Elizabeth or Betsy, around the house, and companions in Nancy―five years older, but, as he later imagined her, ‘My playmate when we both were clothed alike’; and Frank, just two years older, whom he would describe as ‘the hero of all my little tales.’ So young Sam had the streets and the fields to play in, the river to bathe in, companions to play with, and a family around him. All should have been well.
But, sadly, it wasn’t. Coleridge wasn’t happy in Ottery. He wanted to be happy here, and thus he became deeply divided in his attitudes to this place and its people, and he would later look back, especially in his some of his poems, and try to discern that he had had some kind of happiness in and around this town. But most of his more honest accounts reveal a very different story. And why he wasn’t happy tells us something of what he was as a boy, and what he became as a man.
The simplest, and bleakest, account of his childhood, was written down in 1799 by William Godwin, the author of Political Justice, published in 1793. Godwin was then hugely famous, or infamous, in his early fifties, and yet something about the boyish 26 year old fascinated him, as it fascinated almost everyone else. So he jotted down Coleridge’s life as Coleridge told it to him over supper, and a few telling phrases sum up his nine years in Ottery:
The youngest son, & on that account treated by the nurse-maid of his next older brother, as an intruding rival – beaten and sickly, takes refuge in early & immoderate reading, particularly the Arabian Nights – accustomed only to the conversation of grown persons, he becomes arrogant and conceited.
That is it: the next paragraph moves onto Christ’s Hospital, where he was just as unhappy, and as we shall discover, for much the same reasons. Other accounts fill out this picture, and though the energy and ebullience of Coleridge’s writing occasionally seem to disguise the bleak truth a little, his childhood misery is his constant theme. For instance, he opens his account of his life from three to six with the paradoxical ‘My Father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling ― in consequence, I was very miserable’. That misery he then ascribes to the nurse-maid’s rejection of him, as in Godwin’s account. He saw himself as an ‘intruding rival’. There is a raw truth in these words: the last and sickly fledgling in an overcrowded nest, to be booted out so that Frank could survive. Given how old his parents were―the Rev. John was 53 when his youngest son was born, and Ann Coleridge was 45, she having borne 10 children in 18 years―that nurse-maid might reasonably have expected Frank to be the last of John and Ann’s children, and that Frank would not have any more competition in sharing the family’s resources.
We know who that nurse-maid was―Molly Newbery, whose death is recorded in the parish register on 21 July 1819, when she was 82. She was living at The Flexton, the market-place at the top of the hill, at the end of Silver Street, and interestingly, also the place to where Betsy, Coleridge’s half-sister, eventually returned from Exeter, after her husband Jacob Phillips died. She and Molly had spent many years together as John Coleridge’s second family grew up around them, and we can reasonably speculate that they were sufficiently fond of each other to live together, or close by each other, in old age.
Coleridge constantly gives Molly a bad press―‘For Molly, who had nursed my Brother Francis, and was immoderately fond of him, hated me because my mother took more notice of me than of Frank…’. He and Frank fought over food―one of the several pressures the family was subject to. Frank hated Sam ‘because my mother gave me now & then a bit of cake, when he had none — quite forgetting that for one bit of cake which I had & he had not, he had twenty sops in the pan & pieces of bread & butter with sugar on them from Molly, from whom I received only thumps & ill names.’ Those thumps are perhaps the beatings referred to in Godwin’s note. That letter was written in 1797. He believes that Molly taught Frank to spurn him, and in 1805, lonely in Malta, hearing the bells ringing on a day of festivities, he wonders why he always feels so alone on fair days and holidays, and remembers, ‘That by poor Frank’s dislike of me when a little Child I was even from Infancy forced to be by myself…’ Some thirty years later, and within two years of his death, he wrote that it was Molly’s jealousy, ‘and the infusions of her Jealousy into my Brother’s mind’ that resulted in his being, in earliest childhood, ‘lifted away from the enjoyments of muscular activity – from Play – to take refuge at my mother’s side on my little stool, to read my little books and to listen to the Talk of my Elders―I was driven from Life in Motion to Life in thought and sensation.’
This division he makes between life in motion, and another life in thought and sensation, is absolutely central to what Coleridge becomes as a poet, a thinker, and a man. Don’t, by the way, think that he means what we mean by sensation; it’s not, for him, the external stimulus of the senses; it is rather the sense of life arising from the stimulation of the mind or heart or intellect―the quality of feeling that we know when we find ourselves deeply involved in a book or a discussion. Life in motion was the life he always felt he lacked, or didn’t have enough of―and he came to associate it with the powers of poetry – remember the desolation of the Mariner when ‘Down dropt the breeze, the Sails dropt down,/’Twas sad as sad could be’ and the cheerfulness he feels when the wind breathes on him again, ‘Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze―/ On me alone it blew.’ The wind and the breeze are frequent metaphors of creativity in his writings. He loved other kinds of motion too, dancing for instance, though the puritan in him resisted it, and one of his earliest notes celebrates the exuberance of nature – he is on the Quantocks
On the broad mountain-top
The neighing wild-colt races with the wind
O’er fern & heath-flowers― (CN I 213)
The wild colts still race around the Quantocks―another continuity to be glad of. When later in life he developed this note, he called it ‘a hymn of thanksgiving’. And with this natural exuberance he connected human emotion, and when that was, for whatever reason, suppressed in him or denied to him, then he turned to the workings of his intellect, to what he called in the Dejection ode, ‘abstruse research’ or in Frost at Midnight, ‘abstruser musings’. This working of the intellect, away from motion and emotion, became his refuge when he could not find his place in the immediate world; and this ability to retreat from people and situations that did not welcome him, he first learnt as a child―taking refuge by his mother’s side, reading his little books on his little stool―and the reason for his having to retreat he always ascribed to Molly―her thumps and name-calling. It would be interesting to know what names she did call him, because it might tell us what she thought his problem was. But Coleridge is silent on that.
And yet, was Molly really the villain of the story? Not in my view. I think the cause of his unhappiness lies as much in Coleridge himself, as in his circumstances. He proved to be an exceptionally intelligent boy exceptionally early in life. He was sent to a school, close to the baker’s, run by ‘Old Dame Key’, the very image of Shenstone’s Schoolmistress, he said. We don’t know what he meant by that, but at the heart of Shenstone’s poem is a woman inflicting often unjust corporal punishment on her pupils: could Coleridge have been beaten that early in his life? If so, it would explain why being beaten was at the forefront of his memory. However, whatever the cause, at the end of that first year at school, when he was just three, he says that he could read a chapter in the Bible. Not so unusual perhaps, but with it went a clear understanding of what he was reading, and this undoubtedly is unusual. Later, at Cambridge he was famed for reading all the political pamphlets of the day, and one fellow student says that the rest of them didn’t bother to read the pamphlets themselves, because Coleridge could repeat them verbatim in the evening over a cup of negus, and then discuss their pros and cons; not just what we might call a photographic memory, but as he says of himself a ‘Memory tenacious & systematizing’ (CL I 71) And having started to read, nothing, it seems, could stop him. Coleridge describes simple cause and effect―Molly alienated him from Frank, took him away from play, forced him to sit close to his mother to avoid her thumps, and so he read. I think it’s much more a chicken and egg question―that is, his reading alienated him from Frank, from his peers, and took him into a world beyond his actual age, and play then probably seemed rather pointless to him, compared to the excitement of his reading. And then he found he couldn’t play, and moped; occasionally, as he put it, his spirits came upon him, his animal spirits, his desire for motion, and he ‘used to run up and down the church-yard, and act over all [he] had been reading on the docks, the nettles, and the rank-grass.’ He was only five. This was his only form of play, and he was by himself.
He seems to have got into the Arabian Nights quite early, before he was six. Until recently my concept of the Arabian Nights was very disneyized―anodyne fun―Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladin and the Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and so forth. Then I began to read Sir Thomas Burton’s translation, and discovered what you probably all know, that they have a dark heart. The opening tale, which is the framework for the whole, is one of the darkest and most brutal, and Coleridge could not have read the many that he did without being conscious that they were all set against a background of perverse lust, ruthless slaughter and ever-impending doom. If the boy was in any way gaining an insight into human motivation via these tales, it would have been a terrifying realization. But it would also have been completely absorbing. Briefly, the opening story runs thus: two brothers, both kings, discover their wives to be unfaithful―Zaman, the younger, finds his wife ‘embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime.’ They are asleep, and without hesitation, Zaman draws his scimitar and with a single stroke cuts them both in two, closes the door, and goes off to visit his brother, Shahryar. There he sees his brother’s queen calling down from a tree ‘a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes’ whom she embraced warmly, and then, in Burton’s words, ‘he threw her and enjoyed her.’ Discovering that even the closely kept wife of a fearsome genie has had hundreds lovers, and who forces the two brothers to make love to her while her husband sleeps―she threatens to wake him unless they perform―they go back to Shahryar’s palace, where he orders the execution of the queen, and he himself goes to the Serraglio and slays all the concubines and their Marmelukes. But the worst is yet to come. So as never to be deceived again, Shahryar takes a virgin as wife every night, and has her executed in the morning to prevent what he sees as her otherwise inevitable infidelity, a habit he keeps up for three years―thus slaughtering over a thousand virgins. Shahrazad, the last of two virgins left, both daughters of Chief Wazir, who has been tasked with the daily executions, is saved from the same doom, by her nightly story-telling―after which she always goes to the bed of her husband, ‘this pious and auspicious King’ as she calls him, not knowing her fate the next day. To an adult, behind this unlikely and cruel framework, there is a touch of dark comedy. But children don’t find it easy to make the distinction between a convention and a reality. What is more, the story is, in the terms that Coleridge perhaps meant, sensational, compelling, and even a revelation of what human beings are, and the forces they are subject to. How much more absorbing, we might think, than mooching about in the churchyard by oneself, knocking down the nettles, or attempting to play rather half-heartedly with boys who don’t really want you there, and whose motivations seem petty by comparison with these wild tales.
And Coleridge’s reading wasn’t superficial The tale that he specifies as giving him nightmares, ‘the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin’―the phrase ‘pure virgin’ turns out to be no tautology: most of the virgins in the tale are impure of mind or heart―occurs some two thirds of the way through a modern single volume edition; an edition Coleridge might have read runs to some 12 volumes. Why that tale in particular gave him nightmares is difficult to understand, as it is one in which charm and honesty rule throughout―but it is also one which distinguishes between the superficial and the real sources of motivation, between appearance and reality. However, the disturbance that the young Coleridge felt was manifest to his father, who took an action we would consider unwise these days―he burnt the books, not just a single book, but several―a violent and extreme action in itself, which must have re-inforced his son’s sense that those volumes contained dangerous and forbidden knowledge. The effect this action has on him, though he hero-worshipped his father, is oddly parallel to the effect of Molly’s action: of hers he says, ‘So I became fretful, & timorous, & a tell-tale ― & the School-boys drove me from play, & were always tormenting me ― & hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports ― but read incessantly.’ And of his father’s, in the same letter, he says, ‘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 & hated by the boys…’.
Molly gets all the blame―his father none. It’s odd, and of course it points to Coleridge not quite facing up to what was really going on in his life. My impression is that in fact his intense reading, his inactivity, is upsetting everyone in the household: he was completely unlike all the other Coleridge boys, especially Frank, whom he fondly characterizes as hating books, but who ‘loved climbing, fighting, playing, & robbing orchards, to distraction’―Frank was a boy in motion, and we can see why he became the hero of all his younger brother’s little tales. Thus we can see Molly’s thumps and his father’s burning of his books as trying to achieve the same end―getting the young Sam up and moving, to make him behave like all other boys. But it simply wasn’t in his nature. He was, as he says much later in his life in respect of his brothers, ‘different in kind’.
We can see how much he was the boy he had made himself, rather than being made by others, when his circumstances changed radically after his father’s death, and he was sent to Christ’s Hospital. He saw this as a catastrophe, the home suddenly lost to him that he would never find again. But despite the depth of this feeling, his description of his early years at school in London exactly matches that of the boy in Ottery. Godwin’s account of Coleridge’s school days begins, ‘treated with contumely and brutality’; and in the late autobiographical note he presents himself as, ‘Deprest, moping, friendless… from 8 to 14 I was a playless Dreamer… Conceive what I must have been at 14―I had never played―I was in a continued low fever―my whole Being was with eyes closed to every object of present sense―to crumple myself up in a sunny Corner, and read, read, read―’. We know he had access to a circulating library, from which he took out two volumes a day, and he says he read through the whole catalogue, whether he understood the books or not. This was not a library of novels, but works of philosophy, theology, exploration and the emerging sciences―all before he was 15; when Coleridge said, at about the age of 24, ‘I have read almost everything’, this is often taken as hyperbole; but it probably shouldn’t be―almost everything there was to read, he had read.
But he was miserable, and his reading was both the cause and consequence of his misery. Happily, however, something rather wonderful happened to Coleridge when he was about 15―he found a surrogate family, and fell in love with the oldest of three daughters, Mary Evans. He calls this time, from 15 to 19, just before he went to Cambridge, ‘the aera of poetry and love’, and it was probably the happiest time of his life. And with that emotion came physical motion―Coleridge learnt to play. He describes himself as bursting forth from his misery and mopery, and going off to swim with friends in the New River in London. By contrast, we never hear of his swimming in the Otter. Wearing wet clothes put him in the sick bay, but there he was tenderly nursed by one Jenny Edwards, only two years older than himself, the daughter of a matron, and for her he wrote Genevieve, his earliest love poem.
Once he had burst forth, once he had learnt to play, Coleridge in his happiest moments was always playful―‘joyous’ is one of the words used to describe him, even in his old age. His notes and letters are full of puns, jokes and exuberant stories―he was a very good story teller―and circles of listeners always formed around him. Two kinds of life went on in him; on the one hand he could read difficult works intensely for days on end―he once described himself as ‘sunk in Spinoza… as undisturbed as a Toad in a Rock’. But he was also a hugely energetic walker, exhausting or outpacing his early companions. He loved movement, and so he understood the value and importance of play, and delighted in his own son, Hartley, dancing about in the breeze like a faery elf―the very kind of thing that as a child Coleridge himself didn’t do.
And by way of a concluding reflection, I wonder whether this conflict in him between wanting to play on the one hand, and being unable to on the other, didn’t have some bearing on where he ran away to after the minced cheese incident with Frank, when, fearing a whipping from his mother, he struggled from her grasp and ran out of the house. He didn’t run out into the garden, or down towards the Pixies’ Parlour, but out of the front door, down the sunken lane, across the Chanter’s House fields, and so to the edge of the Otter, about a furlong, that’s some 200 metres, from Cadhay bridge. A month or so ago, Chris took me to see the spot where, given Coleridge’s precise description, he almost certainly ended up, and where he pulled a dry thornbush over himself by way of an ineffective blanket. When we got there, there was a village bathing party on the other side of the river, and Chris told me that in the earlier days of the 20th C there was a bathing hut there. Another continuity to be celebrated, I thought.
And on this side of the river, on the slope where Coleridge slept, I saw a rope swing, and the bank worn bare into paths, and what looked like bmx jumps and tracks. There was also something like a barbecue pit, or a smaller version of the pixies parlour, containing plastic bottles, beer cans, crisp packets and in T S Eliot’s words ‘other testimony of summer nights’. So this is where the youth of Ottery come out to play and swim and party, I thought, and have perhaps for time immemorial; but it is also where Coleridge ran away to. And from the accounts of how the town searched for him, they seemed to have known that he had gone there. But of all the places he could have run away to, why there? We won’t ever know of course, but I just wonder if he wasn’t drawn to the place where if he could, he would have played, and where sometimes he might have gone and sat on the bank, the ‘little shilling book’ in his pocket with ‘morning & evening prayers’ printed at the back, watching, a little enviously, the other boys of the town playing on the slope below him, and he longing for a life in motion, of which he had been deprived, not by Molly, not by Frank, nor by anyone else, but by his natural and astounding genius.