February 1797 to Thomas Poole.

In his mid-twenties, Coleridge wrote this group of five letters to a friend,  exploring his past as a source of insight into his character and temperament.

Monday, February, 1797

My dear Poole,

I could inform the dullest author of how he might write an interesting book. Let him relate the events of his own life with honesty, not disguising the feelings that accompanied them. I never yet read even a Methodist’s Experience in the Gospel Magazine without receiving instruction and gospelamusement; and I should almost despair of that man who could peruse the Life of John Woolman without an amelioration of heart.

As to my Life, it has all the charms of variety,-high life and low life, vice and virtues, great folly and some wisdom.

However, what I am depends on what I have been; and you, my best friend! have a right to the narration. To me the task will be a useful one.  It will renew and deepen my reflections on the past; and it will perhaps make you behold with no unforgiving or impatient eye those weaknesses and defects in my character, which so many untoward circumstances have concurred to plant there.

ornamentMy family on my mother’s side can be traced up, I know not how far. The Bowdons inherited a small farm in the Exmoor country, in the reign of Elizabeth, as I have been told, and, to my own knowledge, they have inherited nothing better since that time.

View on Exmoor
View on Exmoor

On my father’s side I can rise no higher than my grandfather, who was born in the Hundred of Coleridge in the county of Devon, christened, educated, and apprenticed to the parish. He afterwards became a respectable woollen-draper in the town of South Molton. (I have mentioned these particulars, as the time may come in which it will be useful to be able to prove myself a genuine sans-culotte, my veins uncontaminated with one drop of gentility.)

The Road to the Lake, undated
“My father received the half of his last crown and his blessing, and walked off to seek his fortune.”

My father received a better education than the others of his family, in consequence of his own exertions, not of his superior advantages. When he was not quite sixteen years old, my grandfather became bankrupt, and by a series of misfortunes was reduced to extreme poverty. My father received the half of his last crown and his blessing, and walked off to seek his fortune.

After he had proceeded a few miles,  he sat him down on the side of the road, so overwhelmed with painful thoughts that he wept audibly. A gentleman passed by, who knew him, and, inquiring into his distresses, took my father with him,and settled him in a neighbouring town as a schoolmaster. His school increased and he got money and knowledge: for he commenced a severe and ardent student. Here, too, he married his first wife, by whom he had three daughters, all now alive.


While his first wife lived, having scraped up money enough at the age of twenty he walked to Cambridge, entered at Sidney College, distinguished himself for Hebrew and Mathematics, and might have had a fellowship if he had not been married. He returned — his wife died. Judge Buller’s father gave him the living of Ottery St. Mary, and put the present judge to school with him.

He married my mother, by whom he had ten children, of whom I am the youngest, born October 20, 1772. These sketches I received from my mother and aunt, but I am utterly unable to fill them up by any particularity of times, or places, or names.

You must regard this letter as the first chapter of an history…

Here I shall conclude my first letter, because I cannot pledge myself for the accuracy of the accounts, and I will not therefore mingle them with those for the accuracy of which in the minutest parts I shall hold myself amenable to the Tribunal of Truth. You must regard this letter as the first chapter of an history which is devoted to dim traditions of times too remote to be pierced by the eye of investigation.
Yours affectionately,
Samuel Taylor Colerige