He is the most interesting of our conglomerate, the most varied in his talents, charms, ailments, ideas, and faults. He ran the gamut from idealism to disaster in love and morals, in literature and philosophy. He plagiarized from as many authors as he inspired. No aliquot portion of a chapter can do him justice.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born October 21, 1772, the tenth and final child of John Coleridge, schoolmaster and then vicar at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, an advanced mathematician, a scholar in classical and Oriental languages, the author of A Critical Latin Grammar. “S. T. C.,” as the son would later sign himself, stumbled under this learned heritage, and lightened it by shedding Greek or Latin tags in almost every paragraph.
From his third to his seventh year, he later recalled,
I became fretful and timorous, and a tell-tale; the schoolboys drove me from play, and were always tormenting me, and hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports, but read incessantly…. At six years old I had read Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe,… and the Arabian Nights Entertainments…. I was haunted by specters;… I became a dreamer, and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity; and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate,… slothful…, hated by the boys;—because I could read and spell, and had… a memory and understanding forced into almost an unnatural ripeness, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women. And so I became very vain,… and before I was eight years old I was a character. Sensibility, imagination, vanity, sloth, and feelings of deep and bitter contempt for all who traversed the orbit of my understanding, were even then prominent.12
The death of his father (1779), whom he had loved passionately, was an unsettling blow to Samuel. Two years later he was sent for further education to Christ’s Hospital, which kept a charity school in London. The food was poor, the discipline was severe; he spoke in later life of the ignominious punishments that fell doubly hard upon a lad who felt that he had been forgotten by his family. They wanted him to be a clergyman; he longed to be a shoemaker. In 1830 (by which time his memory had become especially unreliable) he told of his one “just” flogging:
When I was about thirteen, I went to a shoemaker, and begged him to take me as his apprentice. He, being an honest man, immediately brought me to Bowyer [headmaster], who got into a great rage, knocked me down, and… asked me why I had made myself such a fool? to which I answered that I had a great desire to be a shoemaker, and that I hated the thought of being a clergyman. “Why so?” said he.—”Because, to tell you the truth, sir,” said I, “I am an infidel.” For that, without more ado, Bowyer flogged me.13
Obviously he had plucked some forbidden fruit, perhaps from the circulating library in King Street. There, he later claimed in his monumental way,
I read through [all the books in] the catalogue, folios and all, whether I understood them or not,… running all risks in skulking out to get the two volumes which I was entitled to have daily. Conceive what I must have been at fourteen; I was in a continual 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.14
There is, of course, some vain enlargement here. In any case he did so well at Christ’s Hospital School that his family arranged to have him accepted as a “sizar” (on a work-and-study scholarship) at Jesus College, Cambridge (1791). There he attempted higher mathematics, and the most difficult Greek. “I am reading Pindar, and composing Greek verses like a mad dog…. At my leisure hours I translate Anacreon…. I am learning to play the violin.”15
As always in Coleridge, we must allow for hyperbole. In any case he neglected his health, and came down (1793) with rheumatic fever. He found relief from the pain by taking opium. It was at that time a common anodyne, but Coleridge fell into its habitual use. His scholastic pace slowed, and he allowed himself more interest in current affairs. However, he outran the allowance sent him by his family, fell into debt, was harried by his creditors, and, in a desperate effort to escape them, suddenly left Cambridge, and (December, 1793) enlisted in the army that was being formed to fight France. His brother George bought Samuel’s release for forty guineas, and persuaded him to return to Cambridge. He managed to graduate in 1794, but without a degree. This hardly disturbed him, for meanwhile he had discovered utopia.
He had been prepared for this by losing his religious faith; heaven and utopia are compensatory buckets in the well of hope. The French Revolution had stirred him as it stirred almost every literate and unmoneyed youth in England. Now, in the spring of 1794, word came from his friend Robert Allen at Oxford that several of the students there were eager to reform British institutions and ways. One student, reported Allen, was especially brilliant and had written verses celebrating social revolt. Could Coleridge come down to Oxford and meet these youths? In June, 1794, Coleridge came.