Image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1795

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was an influential poet and writer whose literary career began when he was a student at Jesus College.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was probably the most fascinating of the great English Romantic poets. He was also, as biographer Richard Holmes says:

"a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter writer... An incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks ... a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specialising in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic and... a metaphysician, a travel writer, a fell-walker and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects."

He was an undergraduate at Jesus between 1791 and 1794. His time as a student was unsettled, interrupted, debt ridden and lovelorn. Ultimately he “left the friendly cloysters and the happy grove of quiet, ever honored Jesus College” before he was eligible to take a degree.

Early life

Coleridge was the youngest of ten children to the scholarly and eccentric vicar of Ottery St Mary, Devon, who was also headmaster of the town’s grammar school.

His father died when he was eight, qualifying him for a place at Christ’s Hospital in London where he spent ten years, and then for a Rustat scholarship at Jesus. 

At Christ’s Hospital his outstanding abilities were soon recognised; he had been able to read the Bible at the age of three, and by the time he was six he was the obsessive reader, the “library-cormorant”, that he remained for the rest of his life.

He made many friends among his fellow pupils (most notably Charles Lamb) and their families. He had only intermittent contact with his own family: his relationship with his widowed mother was cool and distant.

As a Cambridge student

Coleridge's first year was essentially a studious and dutiful one. At the end of it he won the University’s Browne Gold Medal for a Greek Sapphic Ode, an attack on the slave trade.

In November 1792, at the beginning of his second year, he was one of the four shortlisted candidates for the University’s Craven Scholarship in Classics, and was disappointed and depressed by his failure to win it.

By February 1793 he was beginning to develop a destructive opium habit. Yet he was always an entrancing and unstoppable talker, and already the centre of a small and admiring student circle that enjoyed wild parties. Coleridge’s third year saw him leave before the end of the Michaelmas term, despairing of his debts and fearful of his brothers’ wrath.

On 2 December 1793 he enlisted as a private soldier in the 15th Light Dragoons under an assumed name, Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, a step which he soon came to regret.

It took some time for his brothers to trace him and they had to pay a 25 guinea bribe to obtain his discharge. But he was back in College, and his debts paid, in time for the Easter term 1794 and the annual Rustat examination that he needed to pass (which he did) if his scholarship was to be renewed.

Confined to the College precincts for the term and subject to mild disciplinary penalties, when it ended he set off on a walking tour through Wales and the West Country.

His first main stop was Oxford, where he met Robert Southey, a Balliol undergraduate, who agreed to join him. Much of their time together was spent planning and fantasising about a 'pantisocratic' colony which Southey dreamed of establishing in Pennsylvania, an agricultural commune where property and the fruits of its members’ labours would be held in common, and its women members might be free of the bonds of matrimony.

He returned to Cambridge in September 1794 full of these Pantisocratic plans. He was also writing poetry for publication in the radical Cambridge Intelligencer, recently established by the Unitarian printer Benjamin Flower.

'Sonnet: on Quitting Christ’s Hospital', 'A Wish Written in Jesus Wood', 'Mathematical Fragment Found in a Lecture Room' and 'Address to a Young Jackass on Jesus Piece Its Mother Near it Chained to a Log', were among the compositions of these years though none of them can be said to be great poetry.

Soon after Coleridge got back to Cambridge, Flower also published The Fall of Robespierre: An Historical Drama, a highly topical subject. Robespierre had been executed in July 1794. It was full of revolutionary and republican sentiments, and appeared under the name of Coleridge alone, though he was in fact the author of only the first act, the second and third being the work of Southey. The costs of publication were underwritten by a friend and fellow student, Henry Martin, who had come into money on his father’s death.

His move away from Cambridge

At the end of the term Coleridge went to London, still overflowing with pantisocratic enthusiasm, seeking the company of old friends. He wrote a series of political poems for the Morning Chronicle, 'Sonnets on Eminent Characters', lauding the government’s principal opponents and critics. But in January 1795 when it was time to return to the College he instead went to join Southey in Bristol.

He married the following October, and was to return to Cambridge only once, in the year before his death. He had by now decided against ordination and a career in the established church.

As he had become to all intents and purposes a Unitarian, obtaining a degree was not only pointless but, without his subscribing all 39 Articles of the Church of England, impossible. In the next few years he was to write some of the finest poems in the language.

But Coleridge was reluctant to sever all connection with the College. On the title page of the public lectures he gave that year in Bristol on 'Advocates of Freedom' he described himself as “S.T. Coleridge of Jesus College”, while on that of his Poems on Various Subjects of the following year he inserted the words “late of”.

By then he must have heard of the College resolution of 6 April 1795:

"Whereas Coleridge is still in arrears with his Tutors and has been absent for some time from the College (where we know not), it is ordered by the Master and Fellows that his name be taken off the boards on the 14th day of June next, unless cause be shown to the contrary, or some one of the Fellows declares himself willing to be his Tutor before that time, and that his present Tutors do endeavour to inform him of this order."

Two decades later he was to write on the flyleaf of a book intended for his sons: “O with what bitter regret, and in the conscience of such glorious opportunities at Jesus College, Cambridge, under an excellent Mathematical Tutor, Newton, all neglected”. He was, said his old friend Charles Lamb, “An Archangel a little damaged”.