Samuel Taylor Coleridge in School and College

by Edwin Watts Chubb

The following affecting narrative, written in Coleridge's person by the tender-hearted Elia, gives the best view possible of Coleridge's scanty and suffering commencement of life. At that time, it may be premised, the dietary of Christ's Hospital was of the lowest: breakfast consisting of a "quarter of penny loaf, moistened with attenuated small beer in wooden piggins, smacking of the pitched leathern jack it was poured from," and the weekly rule giving "three banyan-days to four meat days."

"I was a poor, friendless boy; my parents, and those who should have cared for me, were far away. Those few acquaintances of theirs, whom they could reckon upon being kind to me in the great city, after a little forced notice, which they had the grace to take of me on my first arrival in town, soon grew tired of my holiday visits. They seemed to them to recur too often, though I thought them few enough. One after another they all failed me, and I felt myself alone among six hundred playmates. Oh the cruelty of separating a poor lad from his early homestead! The yearnings which I used to have towards it in those unfledged years!... The warm, long days of summer never return but they bring with them a gloom from the haunting memory of those whole days' leave, when, by some strange arrangement, we were turned out for the livelong day, upon our own hands, whether we had friends to go to or none. I remember those bathing excursions to the New River which Lamb recalls with so much relish, better, I think, than he can—for he was a home-seeking lad, and did not care much for such water-parties. How we would sally forth into the fields, and strip under the first warmth of the sun, and wanton like young dace in the streams, getting appetites for the noon; which those of us that were penniless (our scanty morning crust long since exhausted) had not the means of allaying—while the cattle and the birds and the fishes were at feed about us, and we had nothing to satisfy our cravings; the very beauty of the day and the exercise of the pastime, and the sense of liberty setting a keener edge upon them! How faint and languid, finally, we would return toward nightfall to our desired morsel, half rejoicing, half reluctant, that the hours of uneasy liberty had expired!

"It was worse in the days of winter, to go prowling about the streets objectless, shivering at cold windows of printshops, to extract a little amusement; or haply, as a last resort, in the hope of a little novelty, to pay a fifty-times-repeated visit (where our individual faces would be as well known to the warden as those of his own charges) to the lions in the Tower, to whose levée, by courtesy immemorial, we had a prescriptive right of admission."

This melancholy and harsh life was, however, ameliorated by some curious personal incidents. Once, for example, the solitary boy, moving along the crowded streets, fancied, in the strange vividness of his waking dream, that he was Leander swimming across the Hellespont. His hand "came in contact with a gentleman's pocket" as he pursued this visionary amusement, and for two or three minutes Coleridge was in danger of being taken into custody as a pickpocket. On finding out how matters really stood, however, this stranger—genial, nameless soul—immediately gave to the strange boy the advantage of a subscription to a library close by, thus setting him up, as it were, in life. On another occasion, one of the higher boys, a "deputy-Grecian," found him seated in a corner reading Virgil. "Are you studying your lesson?" he asked. "No, I am reading for pleasure," said the boy, who was not sufficiently advanced to read Virgil in school. This introduced him to the favorable notice of the head-master Bowyer, and made of the elder scholar, Middleton by name, a steady friend and counselor for years. Yet at this time Coleridge was considered by the lower-master, under whom he was, "a dull and inept scholar who could not be made to repeat a single rule of syntax, although he would give a rule in his own way." The life, however, of this great school, with all its injudicious liberties and confinements, must have been anything but a healthy one. Starved and solitary, careless of play as play, and already full of that consuming spiritual curiosity which never left him, Coleridge's devotion to the indiscriminate stores of the circulating library gave the last aggravation to all the unwholesome particulars of his life. "Conceive what I must have been at fourteen," he exclaims. "I was in a continual 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; fancy myself on Robinson Crusoe's island finding a mountain of plum-cake, and eating a room for myself, and then eating it into the shapes of tables and chairs—hunger, and fancy!" ...

A droll incident occurred about this period of his life, which shows ... his absolute want of ambition. The friendless boy had made acquaintance with a shoemaker and his wife, who had a shop near the school, and who were kind to him; and thereupon he conceived the extraordinary idea of getting himself apprenticed to his friend, whom he persuaded to go to the head-master to make this wonderful proposal. "Od's, my life, man, what d'ye mean?" cried the master, with not unnatural indignation mingling with his amazement; and notwithstanding Coleridge's support of the application, the shoemaker was turned out of the place, and the would-be apprentice chosen, "against my will," he says, "as one of those destined for the university." The same irascible yet excellent master flogged the boy severely on hearing that he boasted of being an infidel....

His next stage in life was not a shoemaker's shop in Newgate Street, but Jesus College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1791 at the age of nineteen—the object of many high prophecies and hopes on the part of his school and schoolfellows, who had unanimously determined that he was to be great and do them honor. The first thing he did, however, was alas! too common an incident: he got into debt, though not, it would appear, for an overwhelming sum, or in any discreditable way. So long as his friend of Christ's Hospital, Middleton, remained in Cambridge, Coleridge pursued his studies with a great deal of regularity and in his first year won the prize for a Greek ode. But after awhile his industry slackened, and a kind of dreamy idleness—implying no languor of the soul or common reluctance to mental work, but rather, it would seem, a disinclination to work in the usual grooves, and do what was expected of him—took possession of the young scholar. "He was very studious, but his reading was desultory and capricious," writes a fellow-student. "He was ready at any time to shed his mind in conversation, and for the sake of this his rooms were a constant rendezvous of conversation-loving friends. What evenings I have spent in these rooms! What little suppers, or sizings, as they were called, have I enjoyed; when Aeschylus and Plato and Thucydides were pushed aside with a pile of lexicons and the like, to discuss the pamphlets of the day! Ever and anon a pamphlet issued from the pen of Burke. There was no need of having the book before us; Coleridge had read it in the morning and in the evening he would repeat whole pages verbatim."

—Adapted from Blackwood's Magazine.