In this letter to his friend Thomas Poole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells a story from his childhood. It takes place in October 1779 when he was 6 or 7.
“I had asked my mother one evening to cut my cheese entire, so that I might toast it. This was no easy matter, it being a crumbly cheese. My mother, however, did it.
I went into the garden, for something or other, and in the mean time my brother Frank minced my cheese “to disappoint the favorite.” I returned, saw the exploit, and in an agony of passion flew at Frank. He pretended to have been seriously hurt by my blow, flung himself on the ground, and there lay with outstretched limbs. I hung over him moaning, and in a great fright; he leaped up, and with a horse-laugh gave me a severe blow in the face. I seized a knife, and was running at him, when my mother came in and took me by the arm. I expected a flogging, and struggling from her I ran away to a hill at the bottom of which the Otter flows, about one mile from Ottery.
There I stayed; my rage died away, but my obstinacy vanquished my fears, and taking out a little shilling book which had, at the end, morning and evening prayers, I very devoutly repeated them-thinking at the same time with inward and gloomy satisfaction how miserable my mother must be!
I distinctly remember my feelings when I saw a Mr. Vaughan pass over the bridge, at about a furlong’s distance, and how I watched the calves in the fields beyond the river.
It grew dark and I fell asleep. It was towards the latter end of October, and it proved a dreadful stormy night. I felt the cold in my sleep, and dreamt that I was pulling the blanket over me, and actually pulled over me a dry thorn bush which lay on the hill. In my sleep I had rolled from the top of the hill to within three yards of the river, which flowed by the unfenced edge at the bottom. I awoke several times, and finding myself wet and stiff and cold, closed my eyes that I might forget it. In the mean time my mother waited about half an hour, expecting my return when the sulks had evaporated. I not returning, she sent into the churchyard and round the town. Not found! Several men and all the boys were sent to ramble about and seek me.
Ottery St. Mary Church, Photo credit Richard Anning
In vain! My mother was almost distracted; and at ten o’clock at night I was cried by the crier in Ottery, and in two villages near it. with a reward offered for me. No one went to bed; indeed, I believe half the town were up all the night. To return to myself. About five in the morning, or a little after, I was broad awake, and attempted to get up and walk; but I could not move. I saw the shepherds and workmen at a distance, and cried, but so faintly that it was impossible to hear me thirty yards off.
And there I might have lain and died; for I was now almost given over, the ponds and even the river, near where I was lying, having been dragged. But by good luck, Sir Stafford Northcote, who had been out all night, resolved to make one other trial, and came so near that he heard me crying. He carried me in his arms for near a quarter of a mile, when we met my father and Sir Stafford’s servants. I remember and never shall forget my father’s face as he looked upon me while I lay in the servant’s arms-so calm, and the tears stealing down his face; for I was the child of his old age. My mother, as you may suppose, was outrageous with joy.
(Meantime) in rushed a young lady, crying out, “I hope you’ll whip him, Mrs. Coleridge!” This woman still lives in Ottery; and neither philosophy or religion have been able to conquer the antipathy which I feel towards her whenever I see her.”
What struck me most in this account by Coleridge was how it made the past feel so present. It seems so real to me when he tells how in the morning he “saw the shepherds and workmen at a distance, and cried, but so faintly that it was impossible to hear me thirty yards off.” It seemed just the real business of life – workmen going out in the morning. But when we get this feeling of contemporary immediacy in old writing, we often say “It felt so modern” but this would be inaccurate for me to say. I didn’t imagine it like modern times in lots of ways it’s just that it made his feelings, both in his heart and and his sensory experience of the world, seem very near, and the differences between the 1700s and nowadays seem unessential.