Opium, nightmares, anguish and agony
The School-boys drove me from play, & were always tormenting me – & hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports – but read incessantly.
So Coleridge described his early youth to a friend. His peers disliked him, though adults felt drawn to him:
Because I could read & spell, & had, I may truly say, a memory & understanding forced into almost an unnatural ripeness, I was flattered & wondered at by all the old women.
By the age of three Coleridge could read the Bible. Before he was six, he devoured stories like Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights. Those tales made so deep an impression on him that he was haunted by spectres whenever it was dark. His father found out the effect of these books and had them burnt.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge grew up in a family of ten children: one girl and nine boys. He was the youngest and the favourite of his father, who hoped that his son, like him, would become a minister. Father and son often had long conversations, Coleridge later said.
I remember, that at eight years old I walked with him one winter evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery — & he told me the names of the stars — and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world — and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them — & when I came home, he shewed me how they rolled round.
Coleridge was also his mother's sweetheart. She gave him more attention than his two-year-older brother Frank, who in turn was the nanny's favorite child. This led to mutual jealousy, to an older brother who liked to slap his younger brother and a younger brother who regularly told on his older brother. They were constantly at each other's throats, which led to an incident with far-reaching consequences. Coleridge was seven at the time, and related this to a friend years later:
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 meantime my Brother Frank minced my cheese, 'to disappoint the favourite'. 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 lay there with outstretched limbs – I hung over him moaning and in a great fright – he leaped up , & 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 & took me by the arm – I expected a flogging – & struggling from her I ran away, to a hill at the bottom of which the Otter flows – about one mile from Ottery.
On the hill, young Coleridge came to his senses. His rage gave way to a malicious pleasure in the thought how miserable his mother must be. It grew dark. He fell asleep, and was very cold in the violent storm that raged just that night — it was late October. In the meantime his mother had sounded the alarm, and a search party was sent to rumble around and seek the boy. The ponds around town were dragged, as was the river. At last, just after five o'clock in the morning, the young Coleridge was found. In his sleep he had rolled down the hill to a spot within three yards of the river. Completely frozen, he was carried home and laid in bed. Two days later he seemed to have recovered. Seemed, but not really so. In the years to follow, the nightly adventure appeared to have permanently affected his health. And it is feasible that sleeping in the cold and damp grass by the River Otter also contributed to the creation of The Ancient Mariner, and ultimately even to the tragic shipwreck of a genius poet.
After the incident Coleridge proved to be extra prone to colds. He had intermittent attacks of fever. When eighteen years old, rheumatic symptoms such as throat infections and severe pains in the wrists, ankles and knees emerged. From the age of twenty-five, he experienced shortness of breath, bronchitis, blood and fluid build-up, a swollen face and swollen legs and feet.
To suppress these nasty symptoms Coleridge started using laudanum before he was twenty. This solution of ninety percent Spanish wine and ten percent opium was cheap and freely available from pharmacies. The opium drink was widely regarded as an effective remedy for a wide variety of ailments and pretty much played the role of aspirin in our time. But laudanum use had disastrous side effects, including constipations and severe intestinal cramps. During Coleridge's walks with the Wordsworths in the Quantock Hills, at the very beginning of their friendship, he was sometimes seized with violent attacks of internal pain, that caused him to throw himself down and writhe like a worm on the ground, as Wordsworth related years later.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner originated in the Quantocks, and it is clear that by then Coleridge, at the age of twenty-six, was addicted for good. Opium addiction, in addition to physical distress, gave him the most horrifying nightmares. He reported in his journals and notebooks that these especially occurred when he was trying to kick the habit. He wrote, similarly, of the nightmares that plagued him in Scotland when he was travelling with William and Dorothy. He had fled his friends and went half-running through the highlands for eight days. In a letter to his brother-in-law posted three days before returning home, he wrote of what he called 'a wild journey':
I have walked 263 miles in eight Days — so I must have strength somewhere / but my spirits are dreadful, owing entirely to the Horrors of every night — I truly dread to sleep / it is no shadow with me, but substantial Misery foot-thick, that makes me sit by my bedside of a morning, & cry.—
Coleridge concludes the same letter with a poem that he published only years later under the title The Pains of Sleep. It first says that he never asked God for a favour or prayed to him to find comfort, and then follow these lines:
But yesterday I prayed aloud
In Anguish & in Agony,
Awaking form a fiendish Crowd
Of Shapes & Thoughts that tortured me!
Desire with Loathing mixt,
On wild or hateful Objects fixt.
In the lines thereafter, Coleridge describes how the ghosts continued to haunt him for two nights. He spent the next day in melancholy and numbness, until
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
Overcome with suffering strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child.
Within a day of returning from Scotland, Coleridge wrote to a friend:
While I am awake, by patience, employment, effort of mind, and walking I can keep the fiend at Arm's length; but the Night is my Hell, Sleep my tormenting Angel.
A week after returning, in a letter addressed to a befriended couple, he again recounted the nocturnal afflictions.
While I am in possession of my will & my Reason, I can keep the Fiend at arm's Length; but with the Night my Horrors commence – during the whole of my Journey three nights out of four I have fallen asleep struggling & resolving to lie awake, & awaking have blest the Scream which delivered me from the reluctant Sleep.
The night was hell for Coleridge. Lurid shapes and thoughts haunted him, as did feelings of 'intolerable injustice', 'impotence', 'disgust' and 'shame'. What he went through in his dreams – even long before his Scottish tour, and long before he wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – proved to be the breeding ground for the old sailor's nightmare world. ►
My father was very fond of me, and I was my mother's darling - in consequence, I was very miserable.
Coleridge in a letter to John Thelwall, 9 October 1797