A Pilgrimage for Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A few days ago, I drove to the small town of Ottery St Mary, just five miles or so from my secluded home in a quiet, rural part of Devon. I parked close to the outskirts, then made my leisurely way through some winding streets and up a gentle hill to St Mary’s Church and its surrounding graveyard, where I was delighted to see a handsome plaque dedicated to the memory of the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, set in the stone wall above the narrow pavement outside that leads to the steps up to the beautiful, sprawling cemetery.

The church itself was old, beautiful and blessed with a serene atmosphere. After reading some of the detailed notices in one of the display cases inside, I was delighted to learn that the building had once served as a stable during the English Civil Wars – a period that has long fascinated me – for a troop of Parliamentarian cavalry. Over the course of decades, although I have little more than a passing interest in the subject of past lives, I’ve sometimes experienced what has turned out to be a vivid recurring dream, in which I find myself seated on a small black horse as a cavalryman for the Roundhead forces.

I’m rarely visited by these particular night visions, as I remember them appearing to me only once every few years or so, but just a few days prior to my visit to Coleridge’s birthplace in Ottery St Mary’s, I had once more relived the spectral lead-up through England’s embattled fields in the seventeenth century, to a violent confrontation with a Royalist cavalryman on the banks of a shallow, winding stream. This vision came back to mind with a rush in the church when I learned of its former use as a stable block, so I found myself experiencing some form of kinship with the long-dead troopers who had once stood where I gazed around me, lost in wonder on account of my surroundings.

When I eventually left the hushed confines of the church, I stood in the gentle, muted rays of a setting autumn sun, pondering the fact that Cromwell and Fairfax had once stayed in a house just a stone’s throw away, planning the further course of the English Civil War. I was able to gaze over the churchyard wall at the spot where the home in which Coleridge had been born had once stood, and then all around me at the churchyard itself, where Coleridge tells us that he played as a child.

For me, it was an almost mystical experience to be able to stand in this wonderful haven for as long as I chose, exulting in my presence in such a place. Back in November 2010, as I have recorded elsewhere on this site, I once spoke about my book The Missing Years of Jesus in the church in London’s Piccadilly where the incomparable William Blake had been christened and I had stood awestruck at the font in which he had been baptised. This was a profoundly gratifying and inspirational experience for me, and I felt similar heady emotions as I contemplated the stunning idea that I was once again sharing the same landscape once occupied by another of England’s literary geniuses.

I have neither the time nor the skill to do justice to Coleridge’s accomplishments, so all I can realistically do for now is to try to pay tribute to him in a way that hints at his greatness. This was the man who composed the tragically unfinished but nonetheless indescribably beautiful poem Kubla Khan. In 1798, Coleridge and his friend the poet William Wordsworth jointly published a book of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads, a work which is generally held to be responsible for the Romantic movement, which numbered such truly towering figures as Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley, men who produced some of the most sublime and inspirational verse in the English language.

At one point, Coleridge was thought to be surrounding as much as two quarts of laudanum a week, which is no mean feat. Having had a brush with death myself last March, an event from which I have happily recovered, thanks to the kind ministrations of individuals from all over Britain and Europe, I can think of worse ways to leave this life than the manner in which Coleridge met his end, addicted to opium and brandy in the surroundings of London’s Highgate, a place I once knew very well. Furthermore, Thomas Carlyle has left us with this wonderful image of Coleridge in his last years, which furthermore gives us some idea of the status this great man had acquired by then:

“Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle … The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman’s house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon.”

To my way of thinking, this was a fulsome tribute and one that many writers would yearn for, but it’s surpassed in my view by the observation made about Coleridge by William Hazlitt, a man thought by some to be on a par with the likes of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell; writing about Coleridge’s conversation, he said “He [Coleridge] talked on forever; and you wished him to talk on forever”, which in turn puts me in mind of how Dennis Wheatley once bestowed an almost identical accolade on Aleister Crowley.

Finally, for now, Coleridge was the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I read with wide eyes as a child and which I still thrill to half a century later, while few days go by when I don’t find myself murmuring some of the wonderful lines it contains about water, madness or fiends stalking lonely country roads. It’s impossibly difficult to put these words into order of priority of enjoyment, nor could I say that I take greater pleasure from something written by Coleridge than I do from offerings by Blake and Byron, for example, but to my mind, the following verse from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the supreme expression in English of our relationship with one another and with all the other entities attached to this staggeringly beautiful blue planet on which we find ourselves floating through space:

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

I was quietly reciting these lines to myself as I made my way up the hill towards Coleridge’s birthplace, so you may imagine the sheer delight I experienced when I saw that someone had chosen to adorn Coleridge’s plaque with them, beneath the benign likeness of this incredible man whose writing has brought so much pleasure to the world. And if Fate steers you towards this place, or if you actively choose to seek it out as I did, then I earnestly hope that you enjoy your time there as much as I did.

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