Today is the birthday (1772) of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, literary critic and philosopher (of sorts) who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and mentioned by critics as a member of the group known as the “Lake Poets” which is now a neutral term, but at the time was a rubric of disparagement. Contemporary critics thought of the Lake Poets as insipid Romantics who preferred to live blissfully in England’s Lake District and while away their time in fruitless and self-absorbed aestheticism. In Wordsworth’s case I couldn’t agree more. Coleridge I am iffy about. As a youth The Rime of the Ancient Mariner captivated me – Kubla Khan left me indifferent. Coleridge’s critical work, especially on Shakespeare, was highly influential in his day, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. He coined many familiar words and phrases, including “suspension of disbelief.” He was a major influence on Emerson and U.S. transcendentalism.
Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon. His father was the Reverend John Coleridge (1718–1781), well-respected vicar of St Mary’s Church in Ottery St Mary and headmaster of the King’s School, a free grammar school established by King Henry VIII in the town. He had previously been Master of Hugh Squier’s School in South Molton in Devon, and Lecturer at nearby Molland. John Coleridge had three children by his first wife. Samuel was the youngest of ten by his second wife, Anne Bowden (1726–1809), probably the daughter of John Bowden, mayor of South Molton. Coleridge notes that he “took no pleasure in boyish sports” but instead read “incessantly” and played by himself. After John Coleridge died in 1781, 8-year-old Samuel was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a charity school which was founded in the 16th century in Greyfriars in London, where he remained throughout his childhood, studying and writing poetry. At school Coleridge became friends with Charles Lamb, who was his schoolmate, and studied the works of Virgil and William Lisle Bowles. He wrote in recollections of his school days in Biographia Literaria:
I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master […] At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakespeare and Milton as lessons: and they were the lessons too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. […] In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words… In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? your Nurse’s daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose! […] Be this as it may, there was one custom of our master’s, which I cannot pass over in silence, because I think it … worthy of imitation. He would often permit our theme exercises, … to accumulate, till each lad had four or five to be looked over. Then placing the whole number abreast on his desk, he would ask the writer, why this or that sentence might not have found as appropriate a place under this or that other thesis: and if no satisfying answer could be returned, and two faults of the same kind were found in one exercise, the irrevocable verdict followed, the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day.
Coleridge was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family caused considerable loneliness. You see this reflected in the poem “Frost at Midnight”: “With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt/Of my sweet birthplace.”
From 1791 until 1794, Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1792, he won the Browne Gold Medal for an ode that he wrote on the slave trade. In December 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the Royal Dragoons using the false name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache,” perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved, Mary Evans, had rejected him. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of “insanity” and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he never received a degree from the University.
At Jesus College, Coleridge was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called Pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. In 1795, the two friends married sisters Sarah and Edith Fricker, in St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, but Coleridge’s marriage with Sarah proved unhappy.
The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey, Somerset, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge’s life. In 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. (Wordsworth, having visited him and being enchanted by the surroundings, rented Alfoxton Park, a little over three miles away.) Besides the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in “a kind of a reverie,” and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. The writing of Kubla Khan, written about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his legendary palace at Xanadu, was said to have been interrupted by the arrival of a “Person from Porlock” – an event that has been embellished upon in such varied contexts as science fiction and Nabokov’s Lolita. During this period, he also produced his much-praised “conversation” poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.
I don’t have much interest in Coleridge. He’s a bit more palatable to me than Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets – marginally. I find Romanticism too self involved and overblown to hold my interest very long. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a small exception. When I was about 15 I bought a fat hard-bound note book and copied into it by hand everything I could find that was nautical in any way. At that time I was fully intent on becoming a Royal Navy officer as my father had been, and wanted to absorb everything available. Copying Ancient Mariner by hand (with margin glosses) was a long labor of love that took many days. In the process I remembered many key stanzas. Now all I have to do is copy and paste like this and you have the text: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43997 Nothing will ever match copying by hand.
At that time for me the central tale of shooting the albatross, the curse, and the mariner’s salvation were haunting. Now it is the frame tale that captivates me. I can understand the idea of fate – the mariner survives to tell his tale, but not in an ordinary way. He wanders the earth a broken man, and once in a while he is gripped with the urge to tell the tale to a specific person. The urge is so strong that he cannot resist. He MUST tell the tale to that person:
He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The poem speaks to the urge to tell one’s tale. I know that urge. I am not the ancient mariner by any stretch of the imagination, but I know about the compulsion, the drive, to narrate. That’s why I am a teacher, preacher, and writer.
Ottery St Mary where Coleridge was born is a pretty enough village although not dazzling enough to warrant an immediate stop as so many other Devon villages are. I’ve past through many times, but once I spent the night there at a B&B and was able to sample many Devon delights including traditional Devonshire clotted cream as part of a cream tea. It is hard to find clotted cream these days, even in England. You can make it however, and it is almost as good. It is not the real thing if you don’t use Devon cream to start with – but close. Clotted cream is dense cream that is as thick as butter, but pure white and very sweet with concentrated milk sugar.
Here is a recipe from Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern by Edith Martin (1929):
Use new milk and strain at once, as soon as milked, into shallow pans. Allow it to stand for 24 hours in winter and 12 hours in summer. Then put the pan on the stove, or better still into a steamer containing water, and let it slowly heat until the cream begins to show a raised ring round the edge. When sufficiently cooked, place in a cool dairy and leave for 12 or 24 hours. Great care must be taken in moving the pans so that the cream is not broken, both in putting on the fire and taking off. When required skim off the cream in layers into a glass dish for the table, taking care to have a good “crust” on the top.
You are forgiven if you are not any the wiser. The point is that clotted cream is the cream of the cream. Traditionally, clotted cream was created by straining fresh cow’s milk, letting it stand in a shallow pan in a cool place for several hours to allow the cream to rise to the surface, then heating it either over hot cinders or in a water bath, before a slow cooling. The clots that formed on the top were then skimmed off with a long-handled cream-skimmer, known in Devon as a reamer or raimer. By the mid-1930s, the traditional way of using milk brought straight from the dairy was becoming a rarity in Devon because using a cream separator actively separated the cream from the milk using centrifugal force, which produced far more clotted cream than the traditional method from the same amount of milk. As a farmer’s wife in Poundsgate said, “the separator saves a whole cow!”
Today, there are two distinct modern methods for making clotted cream. The “float cream method” includes scalding a floating layer of double cream in milk (skimmed or whole) in shallow trays. To scald, the trays are heated using steam or very hot water. After the mixture has been heated for up to an hour it is slowly cooled for 12 hours or more, before the cream is separated and packaged. The “scald cream method” is similar, but the milk layer is removed and a layer of cream which has been mechanically separated to a minimum fat level is used. This cream is then heated in a similar manner, but at a lower temperature and after a set amount of time it is then chilled and packaged.
I used to use a big, non-stick electric wok set on the lowest temperature, fill it with cream and heat gently for several hours until clots formed. Then I would skim them off with a slotted spoon, package can chill them overnight. Then use the clotted cream the next day for a cream tea. It was well worth the effort and the small amount of clotted cream never lasted long.