Variously described as poet, philosopher, journalist, literary critic, psychologist, fell walker, travel writer, naturalist, translator and letter writer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born At Ottery St. Mary at about 11.00 a.m. on 21st October 1772. The precise place of his birth is uncertain. Phyllis Coleridge, in her six penny guide “for the benefit of The Ancient Church of Ottery St. Mary”, says that Samuel was born in The Vicars’ House.
From 'Frost at Midnight', by S T Coleridge
"With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn til evening, all the hot Fair-day …"
However, recent research based on Diocesan Visitation Returns suggests that Samuel was born in the School House, which used to be situated opposite the church steps in The College. This house was demolished in 1884 and the site now forms part of the garden of “ Grandisson Court”. What is certain is that Samuel was christened in the church on 30th December 1772 and named after his godfather, Mr. Samuel Taylor. Samuel’s parents were John and Ann Coleridge, Ann being John’s second wife. John was vicar of St. Mary’s Church as well as The Master of The King’s School. Samuel was the tenth and youngest child of the family.
As a boy, Samuel was precocious and highly strung. He was a dreamer who suffered from sibling rivalry and teasing by the older schoolboys. At the age of 6, Samuel was already an obsessive reader. Books like “The Arabian Nights” stretched his mind and his imagination so much that two years later, when observing the stars with his father; he found himself “without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity” as his mind was already “habituated to the Vast”. Samuel’s later religious and romantic outlook on life, his love of “the Great” and “the Whole”, and his opposition to purely rational explanation, all have origins in his childhood experiences in Ottery St. Mary.
Central to those experiences, must have been St. Mary’s Church. With its medieval tombs of a crusader and his wife, corbels in the shape of an owl and in the shape of an elephant with human ears, a globe mounted with an heraldic eagle, an angel sounding a golden trumpet, an astronomical clock with rotating sun, moon and stars, a carillon sounding the hours, as well as a churchyard full of gravestones and a sunken lane with a small stream where paper boats could sail away to foreign lands! – all of this was Samuel’s immediate playground. It was, and still is, a place for the imagination. Samuel once described how “I used to lie by the wall and mope, and my spirits used to come upon me sudden and in a flood; and I then was accustomed to run up and down the churchyard and act over again all I had been reading, to the docks and the nettles and the rank grass……..I became a dreamer…” Nearby, there was the River Otter and Pixies Parlour, the latter being a sandstone cave inhabited by all kinds of invisible creatures! It is not difficult to imagine the formative influences of these surroundings on the brilliant mind of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Much of it appears later on in his poetry and his nostalgic writings concerning his childhood. Looking back at this time of his life, Samuel, in one of his most poignant moments, reflects how he had “all the docility of the little child, but none of the child’s habits. I never thought as a child, never had the language of a child”.
Samuel grew up to become one of the greatest intellectual forces of his time. He became a most extraordinary man with a most extraordinary mind. He was a visionary; he passionately believed in the role of the imagination. At the same time, there seems to be no subject on which he didn’t have something to say. It was the tension between his feeling and his thinking, his heart and his head, that was, in fact, the determining characteristic of his life and work; always trying to reconcile the two. In the area of Christianity, he wrote how its proof lay not in assenting to it but rather, in living it. He said, “Christianity is not a Theory, or a Speculation, but a Life; not a Philosophy of Life, but a Life and a living Process”.
For S.T.C., “deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling”. So it was that, for many years, he struggled with his faith. However, in later years, he claimed “With my heart, I never did abandon the name of Christ”. In the end, it was for Samuel a matter of “…not what I understand, but what I am, must save or crush me!” He died on Friday 25th July 1834 at No.3 The Grove, Highgate, the home of Dr. James Gillman and his wife, Anne. Samuel is buried in St. Michael’s Church, Highgate.