Ben Manning, noted Friend of the Blog, was so friendly as to offer yet another text of his to present to you. This one, an old entry from Ben’s (retired?) personal blog, does not need any further explanation. Enjoy!
Coleridge and Wordsworth in Nether Stowey
Welcome to my second instalment on life over here in the UK. For this piece I thought it best to look at some local history to where I reside, in Nether Stowey – here in the Somerset countryside. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described it as “The deer Gutter of Stowey”. Coleridge is most famous for his poetry – and he wrote all his most famous poems and other notable prose in Somerset, particularly in Nether Stowey. Not in the north of England in the Lake District, as is often assumed. However, as I found out at one of the “Friends of Coleridge” conferences I attended in 2010 – Coleridge was primarily a “Philosopher”. Unlike career poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge really was diverse. Only Blake and Shelley have similar diversity, though as this magazine is called “eclectic” then Coleridge is the very embodiment of the word! Later he would describe himself (to William Godwin, the novelist) as “half poet – half madman”. He was a poet, a playwright, a journalist, political radical, a religious preacher, a lecturer (much like later with Charles Dickens), critic, a theologian, essayist, dramatist, metaphysician…the list seems endless…As a critic his love of Shakespeare even led to “Hamlet’s” first staging in over a hundred years. In this article rather than compiling a generic factual account you could read anywhere – I have tried to go into the background behind the poems and influences as well as such aspect as the imagination, science and collective memory. The latter being the collective memories, often inherited, within social groups and passed on down the ages to us all.
Sometimes I walk our Quantock hills, virtually alone, but for the occasional cyclist…and a sense of childish glee grips me. The thought occurs to me of how many great thinkers walked these hills so long ago. Even more surprising is the lack of knowledge amongst many that live here. True “Coleridge Cottage”, owned by the National Trust – has done a creditable job of informing the uninitiated, though its rather flawed attempt to create a rather sanitised 21st century fakery of an 18th and early 19th century “miserable hovel” leaves a little to be desired. However, as it was before its recent facelift – it is still essential to visit. To Coleridge, the Quantocks were an idyll of clear brooks where he once more lived amongst the West Country meadows of his childhood. Nearby was the sea. He felt he had everything here. He wrote of pretty girls and dances and “Sea, Hill and wood, this populous village!” Even though he was poor – he was at the happiest point of his life. Today, the Quantocks are magnificent, but always under developer threat. It is a mouth-watering prospect to imagine them in Coleridge’s time, before the motorcar and roads that accompanied them.
My last piece concentrated on environmental issues. In a sense this isn’t totally unrelated to the current pieces subject matter. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was very much a man of nature. The environment, it could be argued, is a central tenet of his revolutionary 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. In fact, the figure of the “Albatross”, (“the pious bird of good omen”), it could be said, is a metaphor for nature and man’s meddling of it. When the poem was originally written science and the very beginning of the ideas that led to train travel and the industrial revolution were just in the smallest acorn form of development, in terms of “progress”.
At the age of fourteen (when I first moved here from the metropolis of London’s cultural melting pot of Notting Hill), I had vaguely heard of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Within weeks – back in 1987 – I soon knew a lot more, after I received my ordered instalment of “The Great Writers” magazine and accompanying book. Dickens, Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Poe, Orwell, Hardy…everybody that has made a literary impact was covered but on that particular month it was “The Romantic Poets”. I was thrilled to see Byron, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Percy and Mary Shelley, Keats, and William Blake who were all featured but to my astonishment it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his seminal poems – “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that was seen as the pivotal moment. Coleridge’s writing of the “Lyrical Ballads” in 1798 with Wordsworth was afforded tremendous detail and it even included a picture of Alfoxden Manor in Holford – a village near me. The house is now sadly in some disrepair. I never quiet listened to Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” in the same way! (It was written as a tribute to Coleridge).
The “Lyrical Ballads” (as a collective idea by the Wordsworth’s and Coleridge) was intended as an entirely new concept in literature…an experiment. An analogy today might be the partnership of “Lennon and McCartney”. Coleridge had a keen love of puns and a fine sense of humour. He observed puns as “harmless… because it never excites envy.” He also had a capacity for self-criticism – qualities which Wordsworth, his great contemporary and friend, so curiously lacked. It was an experiment to make the supernatural commonplace and everyday life seem unusual. The concept led to the term– “the suspension of disbelief”. Wordsworth would write of the rustic lives of the working and “common man” (an entirely new concept at the time) and Coleridge of the supernatural. The result most notably from Coleridge was the Ancient Mariner story which had been based on an idea surrounding the fate of an Albatross (who “the ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth”). It was suggested by Wordsworth. It was during a walk over to the harbour of Watchet – near Nether Stowey – that the first lines of the poem took shape and were later continued at the Stowey cottage. It is thought the beginning of the poem is set there – thought it isn’t named. In recent years a superb statue of the Mariner was erected. Nearby is Minehead and in the distance, out to sea, you can still see what Coleridge would have seen in the shape of two small islands called “Flat Holm” and “Steep Holm”. One has a lighthouse and is technically in Wales, whilst the other, right next to it, is technically in Somerset. Today an ugly nuclear power station blights the view from many angles. Coleridge would have no doubt discovered the “Daw’s Castle” Viking hill fort, nearby. The whole Ancient Mariner poem seems imbued with the spirit of the West Country, from Wiltshire and Dorset, through Devon and Somerset and down to Cornwall. Many claim in the poem that the Mariner sailed from Watchet and the ship dropped below the church of St Decuman, which stands upon a hill on the outskirts of Watchet. Only recently I visited the church and it is in a fine state. Nearby, a charming well is full of coins, where you can sit and make a wish. A railway line, which carries a heritage line of steam trains, also operates near the church and into Watchet. Lesser mentioned poems from Ballads include, “The Mad Mother”, “The Idiot Boy” and “The Convict”. Wordsworth’s moving poem “The Idiot Boy” was unique in that it depicted the brilliance of a mentally handicapped boy and his worried mother, at a time when little was understood of such conditions, let alone written about. Wordsworth laments his inability to describe in poetry what the story contains. “The Thorn” is a tragic rustic tale inspired by real life tragedies that would be talked of by the inhabitants of many a village. Wordsworth also began a series of poems called “The Lucy Poems” during his time living on the Quantocks – though they were written during trips to Germany. The idealized figure of the tragic Lucy is a lover’s ideal feminine image. Many have tried to trace a real life Lucy – perhaps it might be William writing of Dorothy (there is no overt sexuality in the poems) or one of his wife’s sisters. Finding a “real” Lucy, such as one of the Hutchinson sisters (as has often been suggested) is hard to prove, as Lucy dies in the poems. Perhaps she is symbolic of humanity in the face of nature. Intriguingly one of the Hutchinson sisters did die young. This figure of unrequited love was never revealed by the poet. It could be argued that Coleridge, as a poet, peaked in Nether Stowey – indeed at this stage inspiring and influencing/teaching Wordsworth who grew as a poet, as a result. Whilst in Germany a homesick Wordsworth struggled financially and felt jealous of Coleridge’s comparable prosperity –STC and his friend Tom Poole often entertained other literary figures and those of influence. This is both at odds with the image of Coleridge we have in Bristol, as a debt ridden radical, and also with the later prosperous Poet laureate Wordsworth who became somebody quiet different to the one Coleridge felt he knew. Interestingly, years later, Hartley Coleridge mocked the poems in “On William Wordsworth”.