A writer confesses: a few months ago, when I was delighted to be appointed its first Writer-in-Resident, I knew little about Coleridge Cottage, and only slightly more about its famous former resident. But it didn’t take me long to learn that, while it might be one of the National Trust’s smaller sites, its importance as a preserved, restored and welcoming site is much greater than appearances might suggest. As the birthplace of the ‘Romantic Movement’, created by Coleridge and his close friend Wordsworth, this diminutive but distinctive dwelling stands proud and tall amongst Britain’s literary landmarks.
I’ve also come to realise that STC (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge preferred to be known) was both a creative genius and a man of social conscience – but a bundle of contradictions in his personal and professional life. In short, precisely the sort of flawed, multi-dimensional and challenging character that, as a biographer, historian and playwright, I am usually drawn to.
His literary and social legacies have tumbled down through the ages – including his influence on his early 19th century contemporaries, such as Mary Shelley and Lord George Byron, and equally flawed but influential latter-day writers, such as Ted Hughes. The concept of Kubla Kahn’s mythical and resplendent ‘Xanadu’ is referenced in works created by artists as diverse as Orson Welles (talking of flawed geniuses), Frankie Goes To Hollywood and ELO. And the ‘Ancient Mariner’ sails through written works by Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, William Burroughs and Michael Murpurgo, and songs by Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. Now that’s some legacy.
And a simple mistyped Google will take you to another, lesser-known aspect of STC’s legacy: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Yes, you read that right: STC has a near-doppelganger – by name, anyway. And, given his avowed opposition to slavery – as mentioned in several articles for his short-lived periodical The Watchman – it’s one of which he might have felt justifiably pleased.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a very fine composer of English/Creole origin: his father was descended from freed American slaves and his mother, a great admirer of STC, duly named him after the poet. SC-T was raised in Croydon and, after studying at the Royal College of Music, became known as ‘the African Mahler’. His most famous work remains The Song of Hiawatha. Coleridge-Taylor was greatly admired by African-Americans who regarded him as a symbol of hope from oppression and embraced him as a cultural icon. In 1901, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society, a 200-voice African-American chorus, was founded in Washington, DC. He visited the US three times, and had a private audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, there are still schools named after Coleridge-Taylor in Kentucky and Maryland – an unlikely but inspiring part of the STC/SC-T legacy.
Another aspect of STC’s life at Nether Stowey that intrigued me was his laudable, if slightly idyllic, aspirations to be self-sufficient and a ‘man of the soil’ – which, in the late 18th century, with primitive tools and water supplies drawn from wells, also involved a higher degree of toil. As a keen and trained gardener myself, I decided to make this facet the focus for the first events in the my part of the ‘Writing Places’ programme: ‘Adventures in Arcadia’, two short guided tours of the garden held on the Cottage’s Open Day, September 29. As ever, visitors were given a warm welcome by Tina Mitchell, Conservation Assistant, and her team of devoted NT volunteers who all work so hard to make the Cottage a memorable and friendly heritage site. On the tours, I told visitors about the suitably romantic high hopes had STC had for his venture as a budding horticulturalist – and the harsh realities of daily rural life as they unfolded for him and the rest of his household, with relevant quotes from letters and poems by, and to STC, and his friends. The weather gods smiled on us for the Open Day, and staff and visitors alike were able to enjoy the perfect combination of nature and literature.
And I expect those inter-twined themes to be writ large at our next public events, on Saturday 10 October. In the Cottage’s Reading Room, there will be two drop-in sessions of ‘Welcome To My Pleasure Dome’, where I will be encouraging visitors to rest their feet, pick up pen and paper and write short stories, poems, prose or even sketches of what their ‘pleasure dome’ might be like: would it be a dining room filled with your favourite food and drink? A fragrant garden with ponds and tropical birds? A fun fair? A library of rare books? And where would it be? What would it look like? It’s entirely up to you – as Coleridge showed the world, there is no limit to your creative imagination!
Meanwhile, on Sunday 11 October, I will be hosting a Master Class workshop, ‘The Biographer’s Tale’, in which I will be revealing and unravelling some of the problems, pleasures and pitfalls encountered when piecing together the fragments of a complex life. This is a free event, but booking is essential, as there are only 12 places available.
I look forward to welcoming you to these events at the modest abode from which a giant literary legacy was launched.